History of Criminal Justice Philosophies in the United States
At the turn of the last century, the prison system in the United States was seen as both a punishment and a deterrent and normally used hard labor to enforce those ideals. A criminal activity was seen purely as something that needed to be punished with relatively no thought to the reasons behind the crime (poverty, broken homes, lack of education, etc.). There was a high rate of recidivismhowever, and so other solutions were sought for.
In the 1930's psychology became a respected field of academia and the general population turned to this as the solution. Criminals were seen as people who had some type of psychological disorder that would cause them to commit the crimes. A brief example is that the general theory for young men who stole cars was that they were acting out a symbolic return to the womb that needed to be dealt with. As soon as the problem of them wanting to return to the womb was dealt with they would never steal cars again. The focus on working with the psyche of the criminals did not work, however, and crime rates kept climbing. Penologists (those who study prisons) had to once again rethink the solution.
In the 1970's, the general population believed strongly in rights for all humans, even criminals. This led to a large movement for rehabilitation in the prison system. They attempted to install recreational and learning facilities in all the prisons as well as classes that the inmates could take in the hopes that the prisoners would be rehabilitated while in prison and be able to begin a non-criminal life once released. Again, however, recidivism rates remained high, and the violence and drug use within prisons also climbed steadily due to a more relaxed attitude about security.
The prison system of today in the United States is mostly the result of two major decisions that were both made around the same time. The first decision was the political stance to "get tough on crime," which has been a major selling point for the last four presidents. Rehabilitation was seen mostly as a failure, and the death penalty which had been suspended in 1972 was reinstated. The other major factor that came out of the "get tough" era was the War on Drugs which began with President Ronald Reagan. Although it is debatable as to whether or not these two mentalities decreased the crime rate, they did fill up the prisons. In fact over half of the prison population of today is there because of drug use (54.7% in 2002). The crime rate did drop towards the end of the 1990's but it is not clear as to the exact reasons of this. If it was because of the harsh mentality towards criminals, it seems strange that it took two decades for it to start working.
As is seen, there have been two major factors that have stumped penologists over the years. Every reform has been an attempt to reduce the crime rate, and to reduce recidivism, and yet both of these still climb.
The Prisons of Today
What do the prisons today look like? As of June 2005, almost 2.2 million people are held in prisons around the country. This means that out of every 100,000 people, 738 are in prison. This number is by far the highest out of any developed country in the world. The United States is also the only democracy to still use capital punishment. This number can be broken down even more into the racial breakdown of prisons and jails in California.
The three major groups that are represented are whites, Hispanics and African Americans. African Americans are by far the most over-represented group. In fact for every 100,000 African Americans, 2,992 are in jail; the statistic for White people is only a fraction of that with 460 per every 100,000. Hispanics are in between the two with 782.
These statistics have led some to say that the criminal justice system in the United States is inherently racist, and others to use them in support of racial profiling. Whatever the reason, African Americans and Hispanics are far more statistically likely to go to prison than White people. This statistic has a wide and profound affect on all members of society from everyday citizens to criminal prosecutors to law enforcers.
The disproportionate representation of minority groups found in today's prison population creates a complicated "chicken or the egg" scenario. Most likely the knowledge of these statistics will not only cause people to assume that if someone is an African American it is likely that they will commit a crime; but will also affect the African American male between the age of 18 and 30 who knows that his chances of going to jail is 1 in every 9.
Whatever people think about these statistics, they have to be thought about carefully. I do not believe that anybody would say that minorities are innately more criminally minded, so there must be other factors at work. It seems as though, instead of only punishing people for doing a crime, there should be a look at who does the most crime and why.
The jails of today are extremely overcrowded and have been operating at up to 15% above capacity nationally for the past ten years or so. And the prisons and jails in Los Angeles are even worse than the national average in terms of overcrowding. Each person that was incarcerated in 2001 cost taxpayers around $25,000. It is becoming less and less of an option to continue only punishing people instead of attempting to discover root causes for this continuous rise in criminal activity.
It is an accepted fact that people living in poverty are more likely to commit crimes than people who are well off. The statistic about the number of minorities in jail proves this concept, as they are also overrepresented in the poor neighborhoods. Now this is not exclusive by any means, but it is a statistically true generalization. People that do not have enough money to support themselves are more likely to resort to crime, and the prisons are full of people who endure economic hardship.
The "ghetto" is a breeding ground for criminal activity, and it seems as though instead of only spending money on recruiting more policemen to patrol the "ghetto," money should be used to find ways of helping people get out of that situation that they are in. If it was possible to help everyone get out of the poor neighborhoods, there would not be that breeding ground.
Poor people are not the only ones to commit crimes by any means. In fact, I am sure all of us know stories about people who are not from poor neighborhoods and who live relatively comfortable lives that still commit horrendous crimes. That is a separate issue, however, from a study of Los Angeles.
Prisons are necessary as criminals do need to be separated from society to ensure the safety of everyone, including themselves. However if someone has a rash, and all the doctor does is put a band-aid on it, the rash is going to continue to spread. Instead the doctor must look to the root causes of the rash to eradicate it from its source. Band-aids are necessary too, but they will not solve the problem.
ed. Burton-Rose, Daniel. 1998. The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison System. Common Courage Press.
ed. Herman, Peter G. 2001. The American Prison System. The H.W. Wilson Company.
Selke, William L. 1993. Prisons in Crisis. Indiana University Press.
Schmalleger, Frank. 1997. Second Ed. Criminal Justice: A Brief Introduction. Prentice Hall Inc.
Warburton, Lois. 1993. Prisons. Lucent Books Inc.
Statistics Taken From
National Criminal Justice Reference Service Online. Visited 07/11/06. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/pjim05.pdf
U.S. Department of Justice Online. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Visited 07/11/06