By Chip Kain
Issues in Justice Managing Editor
We do it bigger.
In the United States, we take pride in doing things bigger and better than other nations. We take great pride in the words “Made in America” and we have a national pride unlike any other group of people. Americans love freedom in this country as well. In fact, the founding fathers were so incredibly rabid about freedom that they essentially severed ties with the British Crown for a tax levied on a beverage, among other reasons.
For the emphasis on freedom in the U.S., the incarceration rate is surprisingly high to many people in the criminal justice field that are not well-versed on the topic of corrections, crime and punishment, or criminal justice in general. In fact, there are approximately 500 out of every 100,000 people incarcerated in the U.S. right now, with an even higher rate per 100,000 incarcerated in the southeastern states (Tsai & Scommegna, 2012). From 1972-2009, the nation became adept at putting increasing numbers of people in prison, with the first slight decrease coming in 2010 (Tsai & Scommegna, 2012). Further, the U.S. incarcerates more persons by rate than some of the less-free nations like China and Russia, winning our country the title of highest incarceration rate in the World (Tsai & Scommegna, 2012).
There is one common thread tying most offenders together that are incarcerated in the United States, and it isn’t the types of crime they’ve committed, their education levels, or their socio-economic status. In fact, it doesn’t have anything to do with the inmates themselves at all. Indeed, politicians and voters alike prefer get-tough approaches when dealing with society’s criminal element, but there is obviously something that isn’t working correctly when the system continually engages in incarceration, but can’t house inmates indefinitely. The one thing most inmates have in common is that they will, one day, be set free.
Most offenders who are sentenced to terms of incarceration in the criminal justice system will find themselves in a position to be released from prison, either by the full execution of their sentences or by paroling out of the institutions in which they are serving their time, making reentry programs critical to their success outside the walls (Wikoff, Linhorst, & Morani, 2012). The enhancement of reentry programs is critical due to the ever-rising cost of housing inmates in penal institutions; however, these costs are further increased when inmates return to the system as repeat offenders (Wikoff, Linhorst, & Morani, 2012). If inmates are likely to reoffend, the problem is magnified even further by the simple fact that inmates are being released almost as quickly as others can be locked up (Travis, Crayton, & Mukamal, 2009).
While some programs have specific focuses such as giving offenders the skills they need to enter the workplace, others focus on education, mental health, and substance abuse counseling in order to prepare inmates for the challenges they will face in society upon their release (Wikoff, Linhorst, & Morani, 2012). Wikoff, Linhorst, and Morani (2012) argue that these programs are successful in their own right, but that each program or a combination thereof must be utilized in order to match the offender with the services that will best suit his needs and reduce the chance he will reoffend, violate his parole, and use narcotics. Inmates need to be involved in the process of reentry almost from the very moment they step foot inside a correctional facility, and the process should target those inmates whose risk of reoffending is the highest (Travis, Crayton, & Mukamal, 2009). Safeguards should also be set in order to accurately judge whether a particular reentry program is meeting its goals (Travis, Crayton, & Mukamal, 2009).
As stated in the question for this week’s discussion assignment, one of the ultimate goals of any program is to reduce the rate at which inmates return to their respective correctional facilities, which would indicate that there is little correction and mostly punishment taking place inside institutions; however, Wikoff, Linhorst and Morani (2012) argued that programs should not simply begin once an inmate is released into society, they should instead begin while the offender is incarcerated so that the therapy methods and programs have a chance to benefit the recipient long before he is forced to cope with issues that come from newfound freedom.
Creating social service programming in correctional facilities is obviously a necessity in modern prisons, but there is pushback to the programming at times, especially with regard to laws and policies that have been enacted in some places that keeps those locked up literally locked out of the programs that could help keep them out of prison upon their release (Wikoff, Linhorst, & Morani, 2012). Similarly, prisons and those in the criminal justice and corrections fields should seek partners involved in local, state, and federal governance in order to pass legislation that levels the playing field for the recently-freed inmates as the attempt to find employment (Travis, Crayton, &Mukamal, 2009). An action as simple as requiring businesses to cease the ages-old practice of asking applicants about their criminal and jail history could afford more former inmates and convicts the opportunity to work a job they would have otherwise not been selected for due to the economy (Travis, Crayton, & Mukamal, 2009).
As a society, we must take responsibility for the situations we find ourselves in, and helping prisoners to reintegrate into society is something that we must place an emphasis on moving forward. A very large number of inmates have very little education, as noted by Tsai and Scommegna (2012), so perhaps education inside penal facilities is an appropriate place to start.
The current system seems to be broken and no one is willing to step up and fix it. Until it is fixed, incarceration rates will continue to rise and crime will continue to be a problem.
Travis, J., Crayton, A., & Mukamal, D. (2009). A new era in inmate reentry. Corrections Today, 71(6), 38-41.
Tsai, T., & Scommegna, P. (2012, August). U.S. has World’s highest incarceration rate. Retrieved December 2013, from http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2012/us-incarceration.aspx
Wikoff, N., Linhorst, , & Morani, N. (2012). Recidivism among participants of a reentry program for prisoners released without supervision. Social Work Research, 36(4), 289-299. doi:10.1093/swr/svs021