The prison system operates on limited funding. The addition of prison time, while effective for keeping habitual criminals off the street, serves to further overcrowd prisons. This situation creates a ‘revolving door’ effect which releases violent criminals early and adds to an environment that is hardly conducive to rehabilitation. The U.S. already incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other industrialized nation.
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Adding more prisoners is not in the best interest of this country’s citizens because they must pay higher taxes to build more prisons, support a growing inmate population, and are ultimately less safe as a result. The economy is also damaged as this tax money is essentially thrown away needlessly rather than being spent within the community. Mandatory sentences may appear to be a quick fix to crime but the harms to society far outweigh the benefits.
Tougher Sentences in Proper Perspective
For more than a quarter of a century, legislators have continually updated sentencing regulations by enacting guideline-based mandatory sentences. Of these modifications, the fixed prison terms handed down by politicians have been by far the most prevalent. The trend toward more stringent sentencing reforms has had sufficient time to be thoroughly researched and specific conclusions drawn from these studies.
The first determination has been that the widely held viewpoints on which these ‘tougher sentencing laws were enacted by the public through their representatives were for the most part incorrect. The sentences for violent criminals were not as relaxed as popularly assumed prior to this period of massive reforms nor were they softer than sentences imposed in other industrialized nations for similar offenses.
Misrepresented data used by political action groups combined with a media that focused its interest on abnormal examples of light sentences handed to violent criminals. During the last 25 years, the U.S. has seen an unparalleled proliferation of state and federal prison inmates. “Between 1980 and 1993, the number of persons incarcerated in these institutions grew from 329,000 to 949,000. By 1994, there were over a million persons in prison. Including those incarcerated in jails, over 1.5 million people were in prison at the end of 1995” (Gilliard & Beck, 1996).
Three Strikes, You’re Out
The sentencing reforms that began in the 1980s had a simple purpose, to contain and diminish criminal activity by extending prison sentences which served to not only remove offenders from the community for a longer period of time but to deter others as well. The theory behind this is that the threat of long prison stays causes those contemplating crime to rethink their actions. Methods such as the ‘three strike rule’ cuts crime by removing the so-called ‘career criminals’ from the communities. “Crime control benefits of imprisonment can occur by increasing the certainty of punishment, increasing the severity of punishment, or both” (Cohen & Canela-Cacho, 1994).
Locking the door and throwing away the key assures that a segment of the population does not have the opportunity to commit the offense, thus an automatic reduction of crime. According to this theory, the cost of incarcerating a greater percentage of the population is retained by the reduction of costs involved in lessened criminal activity.
The Counter Argument
A strong argument for increased prison sentences during the ‘tough on crime’ trend during the 1980s and continues today is the positive consequences of deterrence. However, the significant increase in the prison population since this time has not correlated with a similar reduction of criminal violence. “The tripling in the number of violent offenders in prison during the 1980’s resulted in only an estimated additional nine percent decrease in violent crimes above the decrease that would have occurred had imprisonment not grown” (Cohen & Canela-Cacho, 1994).
Sentencing revisions have put many more violent offenders behind bars but its actual effects cause uncertainty of how already inadequate prison funding should be properly utilized. The evidence showing whether an increase of prisoners is cost-effective in regards to a reduction of felonies is varied. Studies have shown that “prison may be cost beneficial for violent crimes, but it also shows that it is unrealistic to expect huge reductions in violent crime with large increases in imprisonment” (Cohen & Canela-Cacho, 1994).
Punishing Nonviolent Offenders
The Wrong People are in Prison
During the past two decades, most of the prison space was allocated for the incarceration of those who committed nonviolent crimes while taxes and debts rose; partly to further fund the great need for the nation’s expanding prison needs. Mandatory minimum sentences and other strategies that drastically increased punishments for nonviolent offenders such as drug users might seem to be a predicament only for people who use drugs.
In fact, mandatory minimum sentencing threatens the safety of every citizen. Prisons all over the country are past full capacity causing a scarcity of room for violent offenders because those who are serving mandatory minimums for committing nonviolent crimes are taking up this space. In the 1980s, Texas Senator Phil Gramm spearheaded the imposition of harsh fixed minimum sentences for anyone convicted of selling illegal drugs. It’s obvious to all that the motivation to sell illicit drugs has hardly decreased since then. In fact, trafficking has steadily increased as mandatory sentencing has the contrary effect of increasing the abundance of drugs and the sale of drugs which led to the reduction of prison time violent criminals.
Tough on Crime Policies mean Tough on Everyone
In Gramm’s own state of Texas, early parolee Kenneth McDuff killed three two teenagers including two boys and a girl that he raped before killing her. This horrific incident in 1989 would not have occurred if the ‘war on drugs had not given McDuff the opportunity (Mencimer, 1993, p. 26). “Texas doubled its prison capacity in the 1980’s and also quadrupled its incarceration of drug offenders” (Reynolds, 1993, p. 16).
To deal with judicially imposed space restrictions in state prisons, the Texas Parole Board reduced its standards for parole eligibility. McDuff, as are other violent criminals, was allowed his freedom well before the terms of his original sentence. It only took him three days to strike again. That’s when the body of his latest prey was discovered. McDuff was still free for a year allowing him to kill at least nine more people.
He was charged with three and admitted to killing six others following his release from prison (Mencimer, 1993, p. 26). McDuff is but one sensational example of the hundreds of violent offenders released early from prisons across the country each year because of laws that incarcerate people who have caused physical harm to no one. Yes, drugs are harmful but the ‘victim’ is always willing, unlike McDuff’s victims. “Failing to incarcerate those repeat, violent offenders for lengthy periods greatly endangers public safety, and the reason those offenders are not incarcerated is that so much prison space is consumed by drug offenders” (Figlio, 1994).
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Possible Alternatives to Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
Lengthier sentences lead to an increase in the already growing number of older inmates, who tend to amass greater healthcare costs. Criminologists and corrections officials agree that prisoners become considerably less dangerous after they reach the age of 40 and many would function within the boundaries set by society. “Criminals start committing violent crimes early in life and continue doing so long after age 30, the age by which most other criminals have settled down” (Figlio, 1994).
“Inmates themselves sometimes talk about ‘criminal menopause’” (Fields, 2005). Yet another method of reducing prison populations is to amend a sentencing reform commonly referred to as ‘three strikes and you’re out.’ This guideline requires a guaranteed sentence of life in prison for those persons found guilty of three violent crimes. Supporters of this rule seem to sanction ‘discerning incarceration’, a method that could produce positive results if implemented for only the most serious of violent offenders because “the clear majority of violent crime is committed by a small fraction, about 6 percent, of the criminal population” (Carlson, 1993).
Much research and many studies have reaffirmed this assessment. “While the average prison inmate might commit about five burglaries a year, the top 10 percent of burglars committed about 232; while the average inmate robbed 5 persons a year; the top 10 percent robbed 87” (Chaiken & Chaiken, 1996). Supporters of this rule are correct with regard to the propensity of violent crimes being committed by a small portion of the criminal population. Criminologist Marvin Wolfgang studied Philadelphia police documents and discovered “seven percent of all males perpetrated two-thirds of all violent crime, three-quarters of rapes and robberies, and almost all murders” (Wolfgang et al, 1972).
Mandatory minimum sentences can be an effective method of curbing criminal activity but only if these directives are cautiously crafted to consist of the most severe of criminal acts. The problem is that mandatory minimums also encompass consensual crimes. This ties the hands of judges, making it impossible to sentence comparatively less dangerous offenders in a different way than they do the most violent in society. If first, lawmakers reform existing guidelines that punish consensual acts in the same manner as violent ones, then they can enact more stringent penalties without harming law-abiding citizens. Politicians should consider the realities of the situation in the long term rather than the advantageous political motives of the moment.
Carlson, John. “Taking the Initiative on Turnstile Justice.” Seattle Times. (1993).
Chaiken, M. & Chaiken, J. “Offender Types and Public Policy.” Crime and Delinquency. Vol. 195. (1985).
Cohen, Jacqueline & Canela-Cacho, Jose A. “Incarceration and Violent Crime: 1965–1988.” Understanding and Preventing Violence: Volume 4, Consequences and Control. Albert J. Reiss, Jr. and Jeffrey A. Roth (Eds.). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. (1994).
Fields, Gary. “US: Course Corrections.” Wall Street Journal. (2005). Web.
Figlio, Robert M. “Self-Reported and Officially Defined Offenses in the 1958 Philadelphia Birth Cohort.” Cross- National Longitudinal Research on Human Development and Criminal Behavior. Elmar G. M. Weitekamp and Hans-Jrgen Kerner (Eds.). Dordecht, Boston, and London: Kluwer Academic Press. (1994).
Gilliard, Darrell K. & Beck, Allen J. Prison and Jail Inmates, 1995. Washington D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Mencimer, Stephanie. “Righting Sentences.” Washington Monthly. (1993).
Reynolds, Carl. “Texas Commission Proposes Corrections Overhaul.” Overcrowded Times. (1993).
Wolfgang, Marvin, Figlio, Robert & Sellin, Thorsten. Delinquency in a Birth Cohort. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (1972).