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PRISON REFORM

  Recidivism. : a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior; especially : relapse into criminal behavior.

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, outstripping even Russia, Cuba, Rwanda, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Though America is home to only about one-twentieth of the world’s population, we house almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Since the mid-1970s, American prison populations have boomed, multiplying sevenfold while the population has increased by only 50 percent.
The evidence shows that this mass incarceration has performed more or less as advertised. By any measure, nearly every neighborhood, city, and state in the United States has become safer over the past two decades. Crime rates in many categories are at less than half of their all-time highs. But the costs of incarceration — both financial and societal — are also becoming increasingly clear. The policies that were appropriate for a nation that had one of the highest crime rates among developed Western countries are not necessarily appropriate for a nation that now has one of the lowest.
These costs can be measured in fiscal terms, in the failure of imprisonment to prevent certain repeat behavior, in the impact of incarceration on certain communities, and in the tension between high incarceration rates and democratic values.
The financial costs of large-scale incarceration are immense. Housing an inmate for a year costs anywhere from $10,000 for a low-security inmate in a state where corrections officers are paid modestly to more than $100,000 for maximum-security inmates in states with high prison-guard salaries. Nationwide, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated total spending on prisons and jails to be nearly $50 billion, or nearly $500 a year for every American household.
These costs represent only the tip of the iceberg. Removing 2 million people from the labor force causes dislocations of all sorts. People in prison and jail have a difficult time maintaining personal relationships. This contributes to large numbers of children growing up in single-parent homes, or without any parents at all — which, in turn, correlates strongly with more of those children turning to crime.
The policy of large-scale incarceration has also failed to demonstrate lasting success in the area of rehabilitation. Although recidivism has declined slightly in recent years, thanks in part to new re-entry programs, most studies show that about 40% of people who are released from prison will be re-arrested within three years. Despite concerted efforts and millions of dollars in public spending, recidivism rates barely declined during the 2000s. Since vastly more people are serving time behind bars, this pattern of high recidivism suggests that prisons are fostering even more criminality.
The costs of incarceration also fall particularly heavily on the black community. Contrary to some conventional wisdom, there is evidence to suggest that blacks who are convicted of crimes actually get treated slightly more leniently in sentencing than their white counterparts. Black murderers, for example, are less likely to face the death penalty than white killers are. 
Nevertheless, while African-Americans comprise about 13% of the population, they make up nearly 40% of this country’s inmates. A 2013 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission did find that black federal offenders serve longer sentences than their white counterparts. And while crime rates in black communities have actually declined at a faster rate than they have among other communities, crime figures among African-Americans still remain much higher than the numbers for other groups. 
While this means that the benefits of reduced crime accrue disproportionately to blacks, it means the social costs of incarceration, too, are felt most intensely in African-American communities.
Policymakers face a paradox: Locking up lots of people has contributed to a significant drop in crime that, at least from a political perspective, has helped to “solve” a once-major social problem. But incarceration is overused, expensive, and offensive to democratic values. Simply opening the prisons and releasing many people who have been convicted of crimes, however, would almost certainly return crime rates to intolerably high levels. 
This leaves another course of action: reform that emphasizes individual responsibility and continues to use incarceration as an important policy tool, but that changes the frequency and length of prison stays and vastly improves the circumstances and conditions within prison walls.
 
Some of these changes include:
 
Reduction in Incarceration 
 
Over 2 million men, women, and juveniles in the United States live behind bars. The majority of them were not convicted of a violent crime. Unfortunately, the political will of a few lawmakers has locked these people up. Many sentences could have been better served outside prison walls and saved millions in taxpayer dollars. 
Despite this reality, “tough on crime” agendas encouraged the development of mandatory minimum sentencing and “three-strikes-and-your-out” legislation causing soaring rates of incarceration which have overwhelmed an already burdened prison and jail system. Alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders are necessary to reduce overcrowding, to constructively and appropriately sentence convicts, to minimize financial costs and to protect offenders families from upheaval.
 
Improvements in Conditions of Confinement 
 
Despite political rhetoric comparing prisons to hotels and resorts, the reality is that most prisons are overcrowded, often dangerous, provide sub-standard medical and mental health care and do nothing to prepare prisoners for when they return to the free world. For the past 30 years, the federal courts provided the last recourse for prisoners right to constitutional conditions of confinement. Now, the power of the federal courts is being restricted. Prisoners right of access to the courts is being limited, as a result, prison conditions will become harsher and more punitive. 
In Georgia, a senior prison official watched while guards brutally beat handcuffed inmates. Correctional officers in California encouraged combat between prisoners by placing rival gang members together in the prison yard and then shot inmates when they fought. The practice of overcrowding cells and subjecting prisoners to unsafe and unsanitary living conditions also continues to exist. The Constitution protects prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment; it is essential that their rights be protected and that inhumane treatment be prevented.
 
Emphasis on Rehabilitation and Treatment Programs 
 
Educational and vocational training as well as substance abuse treatment services are crucial in order to provide proper rehabilitation to offenders and to reduce recidivism. National surveys indicate: 70% of inmates entering state prisons have not graduated from high school, 19% are completely illiterate and 40% are functionally illiterate. 
Prison programs that seek to change these statistics make an important difference in the lives of prisoners and for the outside community. Prisoners accorded the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills are better equipped to resist a life of crime once outside of prison and more likely to gain employment and become self-sufficient. 
Programs treating alcohol and drug addiction have a similar impact in rehabilitating prisoners. Eighty percent of prisoners are convicted of crimes because of substance abuse. Assisting and treating these addicted individuals will help them stay off drugs and away from crime.
 
Halt Transfers of Child Offenders to Adult Facilities 
 
Children locked up in adult facilities are eight times more likely to commit suicide, five times more likely to be sexually attacked and twice as likely to be assaulted by staff than juveniles confined in a juvenile facility. Adult institutions also lack the same type of programs and services that juvenile facilities provide to rehabilitate young offenders. 
Essentially, by incarcerating child offenders with adults we are giving up on the future of these children. The likelihood they will return to crime rises when they are initially imprisoned in an adult institution.
 
Attention to Concerns of Female Prisoners 
 
Women comprise only 6.4% of adult inmates, but they constitute the fastest growing segment of the inmate population. The increasing number of women require special examination of the issues particular to their confinement. Seventy-eight percent of women in prison have children. Many of these mothers run single-headed households and leave their children behind when they enter prison. If female inmates do not have family members who can care for their children while they are in prison they may lose them to foster care and have their parental rights eventually terminated. 
Additional obstacles exist for pregnant inmates because of medical concerns and their rights to reproductive choice. Correctional facilities often do not provide proper gynecological care, have limited prenatal and postpartum care and no abortion services. Inmates who wish to terminate their pregnancy usually must go outside the facility and pay all expenses. 
Growing attention and awareness of sexual misconduct among corrections staff towards female inmates is also important. In California, women were harassed by prison guards who unlocked their cell doors at night and permitted male prisoners to enter and abuse them. One female prisoner complained to the facility’s administration and was later beaten, sodomized and raped by three men who had been told of her grievances. 
Issues facing female inmates are often overlooked because their numbers are not as large as that of male prisoners; however, their concerns are just as legitimate.
 
Decriminalization of Mental Illness 
 
Ten percent of adult inmates and 20 percent of juveniles are known to suffer from severe mental illness. Correctional institutions have replaced mental hospitals as the largest warehousing of this community. The impact and influence of an individuals mental illness affects their likelihood of arrest and incarceration. The majority of arrests are for nonviolent offenses. 
When the mentally ill are incarcerated they encounter prisons and jails inadequately equipped to serve them. Untrained staff, limited medical care and access to medication, and inappropriate facilities and treatment put mentally ill prisoners in an extremely vulnerable situation. 
A prisoner in Utah returned from the hospital after an attempted suicide and was cut off from his psychiatric medication and restrained on a metal table for 12 weeks. The inmate developed pressure sores, defecated on the table and was bathed with a hose while shackled. He wore only undershorts and usually was denied a blanket. Only after a court order did the inmate finally return to a mental hospital. These horrifying conditions only exacerbated his illness.
 
Elimination of Private Prisons 
 
The decision to place an offender in prison, and the decision to impose a particular length of sentence, are critical social policy decisions that should not be contaminated by profit considerations. Encouraging rehabilitation and establishing productive instructional programing in a safe and secure facility for prisoners and protecting the surrounding community should be the top priority of a prison. Cost-conscious private industry has little financial incentive to meet constitutional standards. A companys loyalty lies primarily with its stockholders. A 1998 Department of Justice report cited the inexperience and lack of training of staff at an Ohio private prison and detailed the resulting excessive use of force by staff. After two stabbing deaths, several escapes and medically-related deaths, a lawsuit resulted in a $1.65 million settlement to be paid by the private corporation to the prisoners.
 
True prison reform, however, must extend beyond prison walls and into the communities that receive convicts upon their release. In any given year, between 600,000 and 700,000 former inmates are unleashed upon society — a massive number of people to habituate to the patterns of normal life. Under the administrations of Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, the fates of these men and women have been studied extensively; there have also been some increases in federal support for prisoner re-entry programs, which has made a modest difference.
All federal inmates — and the great majority of longer-term state inmates — now receive specific training in how to deal with society outside of prison. In most of the country, relationships between corrections, parole, and probation officers and community mental-health professionals are stronger than they were a decade ago. Some obviously unwise practices — like releasing mentally ill prisoners late at night with only a one-day supply of psychotropic medicine — have been modified.
That being said, the effect of implementing these relatively easy fixes has been fairly small. Recidivism rates have fallen by only a few percentage points. This isn’t altogether surprising as changing how government agencies go about their work rarely results in radically different or better results. To really change things, agencies must modify what they do.

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