Lowering the Bars: Reform and U.S. Prisons

prison reformFrom a swelling incarcerated population and the subsequent cost to taxpayers to the ongoing concern of incarceration’s effects, the United States is looking at a need for prison reform that is starting to catch the attention of lawmakers on both sides of aisle. Long a focus of human rights groups, charitable organizations and activists, prison reform is an issue that—whether appropriately tackled or not—has sweeping effects for communities across the nation.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and over $60 billion is spent every year on the U.S. prison system, in spite of the fact that data shows there to be little rehabilitative effect from incarceration. In fact, apart from outreach center prison programs and other governmental and non-governmental programs that work to assist the prison population, the prison system in the U.S. seems destined to act as an unfortunate revolving door for many of the people who find themselves inside it. From addressing the high costs of incarceration to looking into the need for rehabilitation, here are some of the ways that prison system reform in the United States needs to be and is being addressed.

The High Financial Cost of Incarceration

When the Reagan administration pushed for the privatization of prisons in the 1980s, it is doubtful that few could have foreseen what followed. Violent crime has fallen at a steady rate across the nation since that time, but the incarceration rates have steadily climbed. Largely due to lengthier sentencing and a lessening of parole, about 2.5 million people are behind bars in the United States on any given day. Taxpayers now pay upwards of $29,000 per inmate, most of whom have not committed a violent crime. Many of these prisoners are held in for-profit prisons contracted by the state, whose main incentive is to increase profits through keeping inmate levels high and reducing costs that often negatively affect safety — regardless of whether such practices benefit society as a whole. Government budgets are straining under the burden of this practice, but what can be done?

Emphasizing Rehabilitation Over Jail

One way that the expenses of incarceration can be combated is to lock away fewer people — especially in the case of first offenses and non-violent crime. Oftentimes, rehabilitation could be a more appropriate and more successful sentencing practice than incarceration. When it comes to drug offenses, individuals who face addiction often commit crimes to continue their habits. If rehab were a regular offering — even if it coincided with incarceration — many people would find a way to stay out of prison by developing healthier habits and practices. Mental illness is another aspect that often goes ignored in the face of our massive prison system that, if addressed, would lower the number of people incarcerated. Regardless of why someone has committed a crime, greater efforts at rehabilitation will go a long way in reducing the recidivism that also drives up taxpayer costs.

The Uneven Effects on Individuals in Poverty

Contemporary America holds to an understanding of corrections that believes individuals — not society — are responsible for crime. As such, the primary emphasis is on locking away individuals without addressing potentially underlying root causes that landed them in prison. Since the vast majority of people within the U.S. prison system are poor and of color, this thinking must be addressed. Until issues of social and economic inequality are addressed, it’s unlikely that any reform within the prisons themselves will have a broad enough reach to fully change how impoverished individuals are affected.

Women Within the System

Women do not make up a large portion of the overall prison population, but those that find themselves there are often victims. Eighty to 95 percent of all women in the American criminal justice system have histories of abuse, whether domestic or sexual, and upwards of 80 percent of all female inmates have substance abuse issues that need to be addressed. Because they make up a smaller percentage of the overall prison population, women’s needs are often overlooked, which makes for weaker communities when they are released from prison and go back to their families and communities.

Reform within the American prison system is long overdue. From budget crises to a ballooning prison population that has little chance to avoid going back, things need to change. Thankfully, lawmakers are starting to feel the magnitude of the problem, becoming more willing to address the needs of the 2.5 million Americans behind bars.


About the Author: Karen Oswalt is a contributing blogger and participates in outreach to a local women’s prison.

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