A while back in class we discussed prison sentences and trying to determine what age a person is legally an adult. In another class I'm in we were also discussing remediation vs. the current way we punish people. I was sort of curious about prisons in general, so I started reading some statistics/history about them.
One of the first things that stuck out to me was that the way prisons been have used to punish people has changed over time. In the 1970s it was considered a means of rehabilitation or a 'last resort,' reserved for only violent criminals. Today one of the common mindsets is that prison should instead incapacitate criminals of their ability to commit crime by keeping them off the streets and deter crime with stricter sentences.
To do this we have cracked down on property and drug offenders with longer/stricter punishments, increased minimum lengths of stay for convicts, and increased penalties for violation of parole/supervision (a violation of parole/supervision warranting a return to prison), among other things. The result of this is that people go to prison for longer periods of time, and then once they are put on parole there is an increased chance they will return for another year with a technical parole violation instead of an actual criminal offense. Between 1977 and 2000, the amount of people going to prisons for parole violations increased sevenfold, to make up ~35% of total people going to prison. Overall, these increases in sentence time have come despite there being no evidence that increased sentence times themselves deter crime.
In fact, a very high percentage of criminals end up going back to jail after their sentences. This is perhaps a bit dated, but check out this chart:
The amount that criminals are imprisoned once again for a crime within 3 years after release is called recidivism. And studies have shown that increased isolation from society (as in distance of prison from home of criminal and from social networks in general), which is our current goal with punishing criminals, as well as decreasing conditions in prisons, increases recidivism. Which means we're making crime worse to some extent.
Overall, this has contributed significantly to the skyrocketing of prison populations, as prison sentences have increased for nonviolent offenders over time and, more importantly, less people are being released from prison over longer time periods.
This extreme overpopulation leads to degradation of facilities, increased in-prison violence, and, ultimately, increased costs to taxpayers, because this decline in our prison conditions causes even more crime. And in the US the average amount of money spent per year per prisoner is $23,876, not including the additional money it costs to construct additional housing for prisoners in overpopulated areas. In 2007 in California, the prison budget was equal to the budget going towards funding universities, and many other states have been having to put millions of dollars in to prisons instead of education.
Speaking of education, in 2008 around 1 in 3 prisoners were idle, while statistics from 2003 show 40% of criminals did not have a GED.
Anyway, I think it's become somewhat clear that sentencing people out of retribution with long sentences doesn't have much positive effect on stopping crime at its roots. Poverty and lack of education for example, are some of the strongest forces pulling at people to commit crime.
What if instead of giving people long sentences where nonviolent criminals are needlessly isolated from society (when they could be put in systems that are involved in the community) and are often unproductive, we invested more money in to individual psychoevaluation, education, and rehabilitation-- in a word, remediation.
And what if instead of assigning longer minimum lengths of stay, we released prisoners more on the basis of whether they individually are capable or not of returning to society to be productive. It may be expensive, but wouldn't it save us money in the long run? Instead of long, expensive, unproductive sentences, which often end in eventually returning to prison, we could have shorter, productive, and remedying prison stays? What if instead of punishing drug addicts, we gave them therapy?
California, which has a massive prison crisis, is moving towards getting rid of parole for nonviolent offenders, and I'm sure other states are, too. But I think every state needs to go a lot farther with it than that.