The Correctional Issue: How the ‘Revolving Door’, Short Prison Terms, and Useless Programs are Ruining America

Since the 1960’s crime rates have been on a steady rise, barring a few short years in the 80’s when the rates simply held steady, rather than climbing. While in recent years (starting in 1999), the rates have slowly begun to fall, the numbers are still ridiculously high, presenting us with an obvious problem: how do we begin to stem the tide of criminals running rampant in our country today?

If we look at the data from the early sixties, according to the FBI databases, we suffered from about 288,460 crimes in total, with a population size of about 179, 323,000. This gives us (loosely) approximately one crime for every six hundred and forty people. By the seventies, this number had risen. With a population of 203,235,000 people, we had 738,820 crimes committed. Using the same math we applied to the rates in the sixties, that gives us roughly one crime per every two hundred and fifty people. This is a dramatic increase, showing that our crime rates per person had more than doubled in a decade.

While some years presented less of a rise, the numbers are still far higher than they had been, especially when compared to the population size. Even in the 80’s, when crime rate ‘fell’, we still showed an overall rise compared to the population size, although not as dramatic a rise as the past two decades had given us.

So, put simply, our society is being wrecked by a crime spree that simply keeps growing out of control. In 2012 (the last year the FBI has available for this date), we’re still seeing a crime rate of one crime per 258 people. This, after twenty years of social programs being spent on rehabilitation being pushed in our prisons. Our prison budgets have skyrocketed (recent data puts the cost of housing one criminal for a year at roughly $30,000 in some states), but our crime rates continue to rise despite the money we continue to throw at the issue.

So I believe we can safely say that money is not the issue here. Seeing as how the average family of four brings home roughly $37,000, we might have a slight budgetary issue when we spend a mere seven grand less on a single person.

So if money and rehabilitation programs aren’t helping, what other issue do we have to look at? Well, the last statistic left to us to examine is the recidivism rate, or what’s known as the ‘revolving door’ in many legal circles.

According to the National Institute of Justice, a little more than two thirds of all prisoners are rearrested within three years of release. The numbers slowly rise from there, leaving us with 76% of criminals being rearrested within 5 years of release. A little over seventy percent of all violent criminals fall into this category, being rearrested after five years for another crime.

Comparing those numbers to the average amount of time served for violent crime (thirty nine months according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics), we can come to a few conclusions. The first thing I think we can safely say is that when violent criminals –including murderers, rapists, robbers, and other violent criminals –are serving a few months more than three years on average, we might have a slight problem with our ‘deterrent’ level. But worse than that is the fact that according to those numbers, a majority of criminals are typically back in jail in less time than they served in the first place.

These numbers are scary when you actually spend some time thinking about them. All the way around, these numbers tell us that whatever we’re doing, it’s completely ineffectual. Seventy-six percent of criminals arrested again with three years? Violent criminals spending a little more than three years in jail on average, at a cost of roughly ninety grand? At what point do we demand that we see a bang for our buck?

In any private corporation, if something isn’t showing a return profit, we cut it off. We don’t continue to throw more and more money at a product or investment that isn’t showing any return. Why would we? It’s silly to even consider doing such a thing. But when it comes to prisons and inmates, we keep throwing more and more money at the issue, but we never see a change of results.

So to get to the heart of the matter: what can we do?

It’s a tricky question. There is no single answer, no quick fix, and definitely no easy fix. After nearly sixty years of rising crime rates, an overnight solution to this problem is impossible.

But we can start by introducing (or in the case of some states, enforcing) mandatory sentencing laws. Many states have the ‘Three Strikes’ rule –where after committing three felonies, a criminal is given a mandatory life sentence –but very rarely is this rule enforced. If we stick to our guns, and actually force criminals to serve life sentences when they’re given life sentences, not only would we see a dramatic drop in the ‘Revolving Door’ (it’s hard to be jailed for a crime when you’re already in jail), but we would also see a gradual drop in crime rates, as more and more violent criminals were put behind bars to stay.

As well, we should cut the funding for prison programs, while boosting the funding for new prisons. Clearly the massive program budgets aren’t helping; again, crime rates have been on a steady rise for decades. If it doesn’t work, don’t keep throwing money at it. Trim the fat from the programs, or demand that the programs in place show results. Prisoners want art therapy classes? We should demand that we see a reduced recidivism rate in prisoners who take art therapy classes. This is –again –common sense. We’re not paying for prisoners to have a good time in jail; it’s supposed to be a miserable, hence the idea of ‘punishment’. Since the prisons aren’t showing us these results, cut the funding for these social welfare prison programs, and use the money towards building more prisons –since all we hear is about prison overcrowding. This logic kills two birds with one stone. We lessen the amount of money that is literally being thrown away, while reducing our overcrowding issue, and getting more criminals off the streets. Win/win scenario.

If we simply started using common sense when it comes to prisons, and the criminals put there, a majority of these issues would disappear over time. If we applied a basic profit motive to prisons –demanding to see some sort of return for our money –we’d see a massive change. These are –again –simply common sense. But unfortunately, as the old saying goes, common sense ain’t so common anymore.

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