(Photo: The Atlantic)
By Aleesa Viepadan – Contributor
The philosophy behind imprisonment has been progressing since early civilisations, evolving from holding cells to punishments offering opportunities of reform. Today, prisons form a main branch of the criminal justice system, working with the other two branches, law enforcement and courts, to fulfil their purpose– to deliver justice, protect citizens and rehabilitate offenders. However, a prevalent flaw within this structure, especially in America, can be seen as the failure of upholding these purposes; rather than perpetuating the ideals of justice and equality, it appears prisons work alongside the other branches to enforce a system of oppression and subjugation.
The United States, the third most populous country, currently has the global highest incarceration rate. Re-offending rates are increasing, and the system has shown to be overwhelmingly intertwined with class and racial prejudice – the number of those incarcerated are disproportionately people of colour, despite this being unreflective of the country’s racial makeup, and research has often reported low income and high unemployment within prisoners before their arrest. However, this pervasive prejudice is seen not only within prisons and jails, but within all components of the justice system; and if we want to see change within one branch, reforms must be made within all three.
Racial profiling is a ubiquitous problem within US law enforcement, with a high number of police officers targeting people of colour for searches and interrogations, mistaking innocent civilians as suspects, and being more likely to draw firearms on minorities. There is not a shortage of research and cases supporting these claims, especially in the midst of the current worldwide Black Lives Matter protests where demonstrators are fighting for justice for the inordinate number of black victims of police brutality, and retribution for the officers who act violently and unlawfully. This issue is widespread within other communities in the US too, with religious profiling targeting Arabs and Asians and raids targeting Latinos in workplaces increasing.
Years of segregation, racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric has fuelled and maintained systemic profiling within state and federal law enforcement, and reform is needed within these organisations to prevent an unnecessary influx of targeted people into the system, where they face increasing barriers to justice.
Once taken into the system, people with lower income are disproportionately affected; budget and tax cuts introduced since the Reagan administration aimed to shift the burden of funding the justice system away from taxpayers and towards offenders. Thus, the reliance of generating revenue by targeting mainly low-level offenders through fines, fees and the cash bail system, which often sets bail at too high a price for lower income people to meet, results in an increase of people from poorer communities acquiring a criminal record.
Within the courtroom, miscarriages of justice are not uncommon occurrences, with numerous cases causing outcry due to the evident lack of fairness and gratuitous sentences given to the defendants. The case of Cyntoia Brown, a teenage victim of trafficking, who shot a man in self defence but received a life sentence and a first-degree murder charge, until renewed interest in her case from celebrities who advocated for her resulted in Cyntoia receiving clemency; the case of Joshua Williams who, eighteen at the time, was arrested for lighting a bin on fire during the Ferguson riots and was sentenced to eight years. Both victims of the aforementioned cases are African American, and both were failed by the justice system.
Comparably, there are cases highlighting injustice in the form of people convicted of crimes they did commit, but not receiving the sentence they deserve. The highly publicised case of People v Turner is a prominent example of this; Brock Turner was convicted of three charges of assault against Chanel Miller, the woman he attacked. He was sentenced by judge Aaron Persky to only six months in jail and Turner served only half of this sentence, being released after just three months. This case caused public outrage due to the leniency of Turner’s sentence, despite the severity of his crimes. With Turner being a young white student from a wealthy family and an Ivy League university, who assaulted a woman, it is not hard to see the racial, class and gender privileges prevalent within society and the justice system that Turner benefited from.
These are just a few examples of the abundance of cases where the defendant did not receive a just and appropriate sentence from judges and jurors; what is urgently needed are law reforms to prevent as many instances like these from occurring again.
The problems mentioned above contribute to the myriad of issues within the law enforcement and court branches of the justice system, and one of the most prominent issues within the corrections branch is its failure of rehabilitation. For years, the US justice system has placed its emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation, and this focus has been proven to be deeply ineffective in reducing crime rates; a 2018 US Department of Justice report on recidivism of state-released prisoners in 2005 showed that of the prisoners sampled, around 68% were arrested again within three years, 79% within six years and 83% in nine years. These high rates are a testament to the ineffectiveness of the current prison system, and in order to successfully rehabilitate offenders, there needs to be real change within the way prisons are utilised. Numerous studies have illustrated the power of rehabilitation – therefore, if the system were to focus on improving lives as opposed to only punishing them, the benefits would be profound.
Norway can be looked up to as an admirable example of how to improve prisons. A few prominent examples include placing low level offenders in open prisons where there is only one person per cell, funding all prisons to offer programmes of education, mental health and drug treatment, and placing emphasis on helping offenders reintegrate into society again through providing services that help with housing and employment. Consequently, Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world, of 20%, and enjoys increased economic benefits as less money is being funnelled into the justice system, and as increased employment results in higher taxes paid. Norway views prisons as an opportunity to improve society by helping offenders, rather than ostracising them, and regards the loss of freedom as punishment enough for certain crimes.
However they are not the only example of this, as several other countries have their own forms of rehabilitation that have also proven effective. For example; female prisoners in Ethiopia are offered classes in literacy and sustainable skills, and offered loans to start developing business ideas while in prison, allowing them to earn an income; Uruguay’s national rehabilitation center provides classes in learning new trades and skills, resulting in a recidivism rate of just 10 – 12 %, and Brazil and Italy have introduced initiatives where prisoners can reduce their sentence by a few days for every book they read, which helps encourage reading and increases literacy rates.
These are just a few of the many possible programmes that could be adopted by the US and used alongside the current forms of rehabilitation already in place, in order to achieve as low a reoffending rate and economic advantages as seen in several other countries. Advocating for this stance is not to advocate against the detainment of dangerous individuals, but to support an argument substantiated by research and evidence from other countries, that calls for the need to provide opportunity to offenders, especially those nonviolent, to reflect and improve on their choices and behaviour.
The problem of injustices within the US justice system has never been more prevalent and paramount than now; the system has unfortunately failed countless people, in even further ways not covered by this article, and what is desperately needed is change within all its branches. The people do not benefit from mass incarceration and ineffective rehabilitation but do benefit from reduced funds going into the detainment of individuals, and more going to helping its citizens and the economy. However there is an unprecedented increase in support of criminal justice reform, with activists, lawyers and organisations fighting for more effective and humane prison practices.
But if we do not address the core of a problem then we are only preventing further issues, rather than solving them; so in order to create enduring tangible change, US legislators need to reform both the system and the laws that contribute to mass incarceration, and break the fated cycle of punishment, resentment and recidivism.