America: land of the free, minus the 2.2 million currently locked behind bars. Since 1980, the number of people in federal prison has increased by nearly 500%, making the United States the world’s leader in incarceration. These statistics might seem reasonable if coupled by a parallel surge in crime statistics, but studies have proven this is not the case. Instead, America’s outlandish incarceration rate is due to developments in policy that lock people up for a broader variety of reasons and for longer periods of time.
The statistics also might be more acceptable if they were effective, but the U.S. also has one of the world’s highest recidivism rates, which is 40% or higher in some cases. The more the government tries to address the issue of repeat offenders, the further it is propeled forward. While rules and regulations differ between states, many ex-convicts find themselves disenfranchised without access to public housing and food stamps and unable to convince employers to hire them.
What choices are they left with? Glenn Martin, an ex-offender who spent six years in prison, explains, “It’s really easy to commit a crime when you can persuade yourself that no one else out there is convinced of your rehabilitation.” The “tremendous amount of hope” people have when they come out of prison is quickly overridden, “with a tremendous amount of fear of failure.”
BUT, even though the federal budget still includes money to expand prisons, states and authorities at the local level have taken the initiative to find a different approach to criminal justice. In 2010, there were “only” 70,792 youth behind bars as compared to 107,636 in 1995. Adult incarceration rates have also declined for the first time in almost 40 years, though this reduction is strictly along racial lines. From 2000 to 2009, the amount of African American males in prison decreased by 9.8%, and the decrease among African American women was 30.7%. Incarceration rates among Hispanic males fell by 2.2%, but rose 23.3% among Hispanic women. Whites, on the other hand, experienced an increase among both genders- 8.5% for men and 47.1% for women. The fact that there has been an overall decrease despite the rise among various demographics just exemplifies the racial inequality prevalent in the justice system.
Regardless, a decrease is a decrease, and it is largely due to the change in how criminals are viewed. Localities are trying more holistic approaches to discipline, seeking to prevent crime when possible and when this fails, to restore people’s lives rather than ruin them.
One example of this can be seen in how some are approaching the rampant gun violence in our country. While most only hear of the controversy regarding rights to gun ownership, people are working outside of the limelight to tackle the heart of the issue. Community groups, healthcare professionals, and other organizations are coming together to treat gun violence as a public health issue, addressing both the symptoms and the causes. As Dr. Gittler, a doctor who practices in Chicago, states, “It’s like understanding any disease. Whether we’re talking about diabetes that affects different populations, or breast cancer that affects different populations. Until we had the research that showed us how we addressed those populations, we didn’t understand how to treat the diseases.”
The New York City Police Department is also trying out a new tactic, identifying troubled youths and getting involved in every aspect of their life. They visit schools, homes, stock Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, assist families with things like Thanksgiving meals and applications for public housing, and even search for information about the subject’s friends. This program is called the Juvenile Robbery Intervention Program (J-RIP) and is trying to break the cycle of criminal behavior that plagues low income communities. These kinds of reforms are being taken all across the country, with proposed legislation like Georgia’s HB 242, which would expand community-based programs for many juvenile offenders, and Massachusetts’ bill that would eliminate minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes.
Hopefully this is a trend that won’t go out of style. Not only is the United States’ incarceration rate financially burdensom on the entire nation, but it also compromises American purpose, culture, and identity. If jailbirds tweet louder than liberty rings, than maybe the American Dream is just that- a dream.
Keep the change a’coming.