The US Prison System Needs Reform

Quinn Robinson-Duff, Opinion Columnist

Prisons are supposed to serve four major purposes: rehabilitation, deterrence, retribution and incapacitation. If designed effectively, they can create a stable, law-abiding society that prevents disorder.

Prisons are a way to deter people from making choices that society has deemed to be unacceptable by incarcerating violators of the law. When incarcerated, a prisoner is stripped of all their basic freedoms.

Along with incarcerating, prisons also have the duty of providing rehabilitation services. The most basic idea behind this is to reeducate prisoners on the laws enacted by society and the purposes behind them. This is done through a variety of measures, such as providing counseling and teaching trade skills.

The ultimate goal of these programs are to help the prisoners become effective members of society. However, while most prisons implement these four aspects, the degree in which they do so can vary greatly and determines its effectiveness.

Modern day prisons around the world have varying levels of success in regards to rehabilitation. In America, the likelihood of someone returning to prison after serving time is high.

According to the US Bureau of Justice, between 2005 and 2015, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within 3 years and three-quarters (76.6 percent) were arrested within 5 years. This reveals that prisons are not doing an effective job at succeeding one or more of their four major purposes.

Another important issue that hinders the success of rehabilitation is how society treats prisoners once they are released from their sentence. They are treated as if they have not had a chance to learn and grow from their actions. Prisoners should be treated as normal citizens and humans, not placed in cages treated like animals in a zoo.

Prison is meant to help criminals re-enter society but it often does the exact opposite. Ex-prisoners often have a hard time finding jobs or even a place to live because of the discrimination that they face from organizations and businesses that do not accept applicants from felons.

The Bureau states that the current prison population in the United States is over 2.2 million— roughly 4.4 percent of the worldwide population and more prisoners than any other country. This raises the question: is it necessary to keep offenders of all crimes in prisons Each prison costs the taxpayers’ money and some have hefty prices?

In 2012, New York City was paying $127,000 per year to keep one inmate in prison, according to a study by the New York City planning budget office. Nationwide, the annual average cost to incarcerate a prisoner is $32,000, averaging to over 39 billion taxpayer dollars each year.

So, do all criminals need to be incarcerated? No.

39 percent of prisoners in the United States that are behind bars are of little to no threat to public safety, according to a Time Magazine report. This is mainly because of the minimal sentencing requirement set by the U.S Department of Justice. For getting caught selling 280 grams of cocaine, the minimal sentence is 10 years in prison. The rules were set by congress and enforced by judges who have no other choice but to grant them the minimal sentencing or higher.

If we take those prisoners out of prison, the $13 billion worth of taxes could be used in other departments, such as education or green energy. Keeping all offenders in jail makes no sense. They are put through a system that makes it tough to readjust to society and cost taxpayers unnecessary money just so they can end up returning to prisons.

Countries around the world are working to improve their prisons and allow inmates a chance to learn from their mistakes and better their lives. In Norway, roughly .08% of the population is incarcerated. According to Business Insider, as of August 2014, they also have the lowest recidivism rate: only 20 percent of released criminals reoffend.

Norway accomplishes this by applying a Restorative Justice approach to problem solving which focuses on reparation of the harm caused rather than just punishing citizens. A person is not sent to prison simply with the intent to make them suffer.

If we treat people as if they are animals in prison, they are likely to behave like animals. In Norway, Prisoner Governor of Baston prison in Norway Arne Wilson states, “Here, we pay attention to you as human beings.”

Reproaching the prison system to model Norway’s or at least redesigning the experience of incarcerated prisoners in the United States could result in a completely new perspective on prisons and eventually make them more beneficial to society.

Quinn Robinson-Duff is an opinion columnist for the Dakota Student. He can be reached at [email protected].