By Dianne Frazee-Walker

There is good news about the condition of America’s criminal justice system. Both conservatives and liberals are agreeing that the time has come to revamp the prison system. Everyone is on the same page about how mass incarceration is costing the country too much money. For some reason when an out of control problem hits people’s pocketbooks, collaboration happens. When incarcerating a prisoner for a year reaches the same cost as student tuition at Harvard University, it is time to make a change.   

 Realization that American prisons are being financed to perpetuate social insufficiency, recidivism, and desperateness has caused legislation to reconsider the high cost of incarceration. The result is crime rates have decreased and the public is beginning to support non-violent offender reform as opposed to long-term prison sentences.

Over the last three years prison doors have been shutting on the outside instead of the inside. The prison population is not large enough to fill America’s prisons and they are gradually going out of business. From academics, progressive law enforcement groups, innovative rehabilitation programs and victim crime advocates to even fundamentalists, all have been struggling to repair our broken justice system, which has turned into a perpetual misery machine.    

America’s mass incarceration dilemma has forced society to take a long hard look at what can be done to transform criminals into productive citizens.

Even states that use punitive law-and-order approaches in an attempt to conquer crime are now desperate enough to embrace tolerant rehabilitation programs once thought of as bleeding heart liberalism alternatives only a few years ago. 

Justice Reinvestment is a new program that is directed at curbing prison costs and reinvesting the savings into other options. The program is conducting studies to define cost effective alternatives to traditional incarceration that will produce positive outcomes. The Urban Institute researched 17 states, both republican and democrat dominated, to evaluate if these states are appropriate candidates for Justice Reinvestment.

California counties are being offered $1 billion annually to test new strategies as a solution to the state’s overcrowded prisons. California is under a Supreme Court mandated order to resolve its prison overpopulation problem. The three-strike policy has turned California’s prisons into inhumane inmate warehouses that need to be relieved. Criminal justice experts have come up with a wide-range of unconventional strategies to alleviate the overwhelming problems the penal system is facing today.

America’s disposable culture has flowed over to criminal justice sentencing procedures. For a modern developed country their concept of sentencing is archaic. The “trail’ em, nail’ em and jail’ em” attitude is a remnant of the “tough on crime” movement of the ‘70’s. The crack epidemic evoked public fear which set off an overreaction of punitive sentencing laws. Three-strike laws, along with mandatory minimum sentences are the culprits that sent non-violent drug offenders, a significant amount of African Americans, and senior citizens into lock-up well past the time they are a threat to the outside world.

These stiff sentencing laws are obviously not working because they have decreased the crime rate by 0%. Americans are paying a high price to appease prosecutors who use intimidation of over-sentencing to accommodate plea agreements. The problem with plea-dealing is that it does not provide a bargain for anyone. Guilty defendants are not accountable for their crimes and the innocent are forced to admit guilt for fear of a harsher sentence.

Over sentencing and mass incarceration are not the only problems lurking within the criminal justice system. Imagine the 2.3 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the U.S. For every one of these inmates, two more people are on probation or parole. Judicial supervision is another ineffective sentencing process that is wasting tax-payer’s money. Probation and parole officers are not paid enough and do not have enough time to thoroughly monitor every probationer and parolee because the system is overloaded with cases. Most probation offices are a revolving door back to prison.

Mark Kleiman, a U.C.L.A. public policy professor and judicial supervision expert proclaims disciplinary theories of probation and parole are similar to parenting practices. Punishment is enforced by using minute scare tactics for the first probation or parole violation, then the severity of the punishment is increased as the offenses increase in hopes that the probationer or parolee finally “gets it.” If the behavior doesn’t change rapidly, the ultimate punishment is being sent back to prison.  The problem with this procedure is it doesn’t take too many mistakes before the offender winds up back in the system and the cycle continues without successful rehabilitation.

An attempt has been made to rectify the situation by sending caseworkers out into the community to observe high risk clients and using technology to screen drug and alcohol use and track whereabouts.

Diversion is a growing response to criminal activity that promotes treatment for non-violent drug offenders and offers specialized court venues for veteran and domestic violence offenders. Drug courts are popular diversions being used in many jurisdictions to refer drug abusers to treatment in place of prison time. The Public Safety Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts claims more than 2,000 drug courts have sprung up in various jurisdictions to divert part of the overload of drug cases.  

Re-Entry programs and revised reentry employment laws are effective changes to the criminal justice system that can make a positive impact on the afterlives of released inmates. More than 650,000 prisoners are released each year with no means of earning a living or family support. Corporate policies that require felons to check the box on employment applications that asks if you have ever been arrested, do not help the dire situation. A criminal history can still count against you in hiring, but it doesn’t eliminate you from consideration.

Improvements in re-entry job hiring requirements and new programs are improving the odds of released inmates to lead more fruitful lives. Innovative reentry programs offer prerelease counseling and recruit family support for newly released inmates. “Ban the box” initiatives motivate employers to remove the “ever been arrested” box. Target gets acknowledgement for being the largest retailer to ban the box.  Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says another simple measure is to repeal rules that say a felon can’t be licensed as a barber or beautician. 

Defined policing has proven to decrease violent crime occurrences in major cities. Police in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans other urban areas are being more discriminating about who they arrest. They are concentrating on drug congregations and gang hang-outs.  Random stopping and searching causes more criminal justice system congestion problems. 

It is evident the justice system could stand many modifications, but it will take public patience and challenges to reach their restoration goals. Although the government has amplified assessment of all these programs (see the National Institute of Justice’s impressive CrimeSolutions.gov website), most of the evidence is still tentative.

The most significant obstacles to criminal justice reform are two in number:  lack of rigorous science, and resistance from prosecutors and private prison owners. If program evaluation is too sluggish, the public will become fearful and go back to funding more prisons. Private prison operators are invested in the prison business because the more beds that are occupied, the more money that goes into their pockets.

Liberal skeptics are concerned that these programs will not address the core issues of crime and prison overcrowding, such as poor schools, deteriorating neighborhoods, and lack of job opportunities.

Getting America off probation is going to require time and risk-taking; after all, it has taken decades to reap the consequences of “tough on crime” policies.

“If You Keep Doing What You’ve Been Doing – You’ll Keep Getting What You’ve Been Getting!” The same holds true for justice reform.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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