Failure to prepare those prisoners for outside world
Programs showing success
Need for similar programs
A movie made in 1939 entitled They All Come Out makes the point that all prisoners are released one way or another, with most returning to the community (while a comparative few die in prison). The point of the film was that provision must be made for the re-entry of prisoners into the community, a point that seems to have been lost in the intervening years as politicians increase punishments as if longer sentences would solve all problems, while the re-entry of prisoners to society takes a back seat and is often left to the prisoners to figure out if they can. If released felons commit more crimes, the response is to reduce parole and keep them in prison longer, ignoring the fact that at some point they will still be released and the problem will appear once more. Prison was once seen as a place for rehabilitation, in part so the felon re-entering society would be prepared with job skills and social skills to avoid returning to a life of crime. With a shift to a philosophy of punishment alone, often so severe that all amenities are excluded, prison does not prepare inmates for anything except being prisoners and indeed serves for many as a training ground for new crimes. An examination of the issue shows that high recidivism rates are tied to this new philosophy and that a lack of any preparation for re-entry makes successful re-entry less likely, suggesting that a rethinking of society's priorities is in order.
The United States Sentencing Commission was created in 1984 with passage of the Sentencing Reform Act. Prior to this there had been much debate on the merits of a federal sentencing system that had little structure and broad discretion. Critics said that different judges with different judicial philosophies imposed different sentences on offenders who were similar. Members of Congress therefore sought greater uniformity and certainty in sentencing. The resulting guidelines take into account both the defendant's count of conviction and the actual nature of the criminal conduct by assigning a base offense level (a number) that serves as a starting point in assessing the seriousness of an offense. This base offense level will increase or decrease depending upon the circumstances of the particular case, and the factors used to modify the base offense level are enumerated in the guidelines. This forms one axis of the table used to determine sentencing ranges, and the sentencing table's offense axis extends from level 1 (least serious) to level 43 (most serious). The other axis involves the defendant's criminal history as expressed in one of six categories, and the point at which the offense level and criminal history category intersect on the sentencing table determines an offender's guideline range (Conaboy).
Political leaders can point to the public and public concerns when asked why they believe there is a need for mandatory minimum sentencing, as Bessette notes:
Most Americans are skeptical of their criminal justice system, and properly so. Perhaps the single best measure of their dissatisfaction is the answer they give to a question regularly asked by the Gallup organization about the performance of the courts. In 1994, 85% of Americans maintained that the courts in their area dealt "not harshly enough" with criminals. There was almost no change in this level of dissatisfaction across a range of socio-demographic variables such as sex, race, age, education, income, and region (Bessette).
There is considerable public support for the idea that criminals need to be given harsher punishment and almost none for the idea that some other means should be taken to reduce crime. Those concerned about crime can point to a number of statistical studies to show that crime is increasing and is not being punished at the level the public would prefer. A National Punishment Survey conducted by the Population and Society Research Center at Bowling Green State University in 1987 showed that the public recommends prison sentences for a variety of violent and other serious crimes that would be approximately three times longer than offenders actually serve. According to U.S. Department of Justice data on actual time served by those leaving state prisons, half the murderers serve seven years or less, half the rapists serve less than four years, half the robbers serve two years and three months or less, half of those convicted of felony assault serve one year and four months or less, and half the drug traffickers serve one year and two months or less. Nearly half of the 54,000 violent offenders who were released from prisons in 36 states in 1992 served two years or less behind bars. These figures include many offenders with prior records and many convicted of multiple offenses at one time. Beyond these figures, many of those convicted of felonies receive sentences of straight probation rather than incarceration. It was found that in 1994, state courts throughout the nation sentenced 29% of convicted felons to probation with no incarceration, meaning a total of 253,000 offenders, including 2,400 rapists, 5,500 robbers, over 16,000 persons convicted of aggravated assault, and 48,000 drug traffickers (Bessette). Bessette finds that the sentences desired by the public are reasonable and that implementing them with mandatory minimum sentences would be a benefit:
By bringing punishment more in line with public judgments about what offenders deserve, we will incapacitate recidivists, more effectively deter would-be criminals, and enhance public confidence in our governing institutions (Bessette).
Critics believe that mandatory minimum sentences do little besides filling the prisons with people who might better be punished in some other way. Kopel states that since the 1980s, the United States has been engaged in the largest imprisonment program ever attempted by a democratic society, increasing the prison population at every level:
The drastic growth of the combined state and Federal prison population mainly is the result not of demographics, but of policy changes. Population growth accounted for almost eight percent of the increase in prison inmates; increased crime, about 19%; and more arrests, slightly more than five percent. The great bulk of the surge -- around 61% -- was the result of decisions to send to prison offenders who otherwise would have been given an alternative sentence. An additional seven percent resulted from an increase in time served (Kopel).
The figures on the size of the prison population are staggering and are also continuing to grow. Each week one thousand new prisoners are placed in U.S. prisons. Cost estimates range from $14,000 to $30,000 per year, depending on the state or federal facility under discussion, with the average being the aforementioned $20,000 per year. Prison construction is up as well, and at the present time well over 100 state facilities are under construction along with another ten for the federal system. The total cost for new prison construction alone will be over $70 billion in the next few decades, assuming that there is no increase in need beyond what is already foreseen. This means a drain on the budgets for schools, health care, and other public facilities and programs. At the federal level, the number of prisoners being sentenced is exceeding the capacity of the prison system to house them. By the end of 1993, the federal prison population is expected to reach 84,000, which is still 17,000 more than the expanded system proposed in 1989 by George Bush will hold. Stiffer sentences and mandatory sentencing guidelines have only added to the size of the problem. Such laws were passed to assuage the fears of the public, but in truth thousands of prisoners have been released early from both state and federal prisons because the system will not hold the size of the population being sentenced (Lacayo 28-33).
Early release is not the real issue, for thousands of prisoners are released each year because their sentences are finished. The public has a fear of crimes that might be committed by this population as well, not simply those being released early. Such fears are well founded given the high recidivism rates.
Prison policy is based in part on the prevailing theory of criminality, which for the last two decades has been the rational choice model. This is the classical explanation of crime and holds that crime is the result of choice or free will by which the offender considers the costs and benefits of the behavior before committing the act. Under this view, the appropriate crime control strategy is a punishment suited to the severity of the offense, with the major objectives being retribution, incapacitation, and deterrence through punishment. This model rests on the belief that people have the ability…