In the past decade, the American public and the world at large have been exposed to a problem — the rising prison population in the United States. People know American prison facts so well they can probably recite them in their sleep: America holds roughly five percent of the world’s people, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Between 30 and 41 percent of juveniles have been arrested by the time they’re 23. Over the last 30 years, our prison population has increased more than 400 percent. Many prisoners are ineligible for student loans, public housing and food stamps, and are isolated from support systems after doing their time.
The Black Lives Matter movement, which has increased news coverage of killed or incarcerated young black males, and the popularized “The New Jim Crow” book by Michelle Alexander, have led people to believe that the problem of mass incarceration lies in the imprisonment of too many nonviolent drug offenders. The solution, therefore, seems obvious: Release nonviolent offenders and provide less punitive, more rehabilitative options. That feels good in theory — a simple solution for a simple problem. Unfortunately, that formula seldom applies to life.
While we should reverse extreme policies hindering this population, solving the problems regarding nonviolent drug offenders will not solve problems in America’s criminal justice system. Why? They don’t make up that many offenders. That is, 90 percent of general offenders are in state institutions, and 17 percent are there for drug-related crimes, meaning that if we were to release all nonviolent offenders, it would decrease the prison population by approximately 300,000. That’s significant, but will not combat the larger issue. Additionally, while it is true that close to 44 percent of federal prisoners are locked up for drug crimes, federal prisoners make up a small portion (about 216,300 as of 2014) of our prison population.
Fortunately, within this context, drug laws have become increasingly lenient. From 2009 to 2013, drug laws were made more forgiving in 40 states. Due to the high expenses of housing inmates, increasing use of drug courts and decriminalization of marijuana, our perspective on drug use and treatment has shifted; the nation has moved away from punishment and toward rehabilitation. As a result, the well-known (and smaller) issue of harsh drug policies has become somewhat resolved.
And yet, even beyond the understanding of nonviolent drug offenders, there are more misconceptions about problems plaguing our criminal justice system. Specifically, private prisons and mandatory minimums.
It’s commonly believed that private prisons are deplorable institutions, set to exploit prisoners and imprison as many people as possible. Yet, according to the ACLU, private prisons contain just 6 percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners. Although these institutions are incentivized to imprison more people, they were created as a response to mass incarceration, not as instigators of the issue. They’re not the main concern.
Additionally, mandatory minimums are seen as unjust structures that have wildly increased prison populations. However, prisoners have not served much more time due to these sentences. According to David Brooks, “Roughly half of all prisoners have prison terms in the range of two to three years, and only 10 percent serve more than seven years.” To be sure, mandatory minimums are not “good.” But, again, they are not the main driver of mass incarceration in this country.
Clearly, though, there are problems in our criminal justice system; we don’t have the largest prison population for nothing. It seems that the answer lies in our prosecutors. From the 1990s to the mid-2000s, district attorneys became more aggressive with their felony charges, ultimately imprisoning people for longer periods — increasing imprisonment even while the number of arrests was decreasing.
The reason these persons delivered harsh sentences is murky, possibly due to tough-on-crime policies, the war on drugs and political motivators.
Ultimately, though, these actions were likely propagated by the belief that criminals are bad people, not people having done badly in a difficult situation. Maybe if we change how we see them, not as callous, manipulative or insane individuals, but rather as humans who falter and make mistakes based on their lives’ contexts, we will avoid unfairly harsh penalties.
Now, you may be asking, if we are to shape our perspectives, does that mean that everyone should be let go? Should there be no punishment for the crime? Of course not. However, we need to suggest proper restitution, thereby allowing perpetrators to right their wrongs: apologize, rehabilitate themselves and pay it forward to the community of which they’ve damaged. Provide them autonomy by giving them a purpose and the opportunity to augment something else — specifically if it can help their victims (or victims’ family).
Two New York-based programs embody this sentiment: the Bard Prison Initiative and Work For Success program. The former allows prisoners to earn a college degree while the latter provides them opportunities to work after being released. Each helps reduce recidivism rates, expand the economy and instill hope in people who were formerly lost in the system.
In order to implement these kinds of programs, we must believe that troubled people can restore justice. We should allow people the opportunity to alter the way they see themselves and their world, and contribute positively (directly or indirectly) to those they’ve harmed. Truly, that’s the beauty of human nature within our society — we can advance ourselves and avoid a zero-sum game, with a definite loser and winner. That is, our capacity for improvement can make everyone in our world better off. Whether it’s reform, rehabilitation or introspection more broadly, our malleability allows for limitless possibilities.
Sam Corey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.