The criminal justice system in America is badly broken. There are a multitude of problems with it, and fixing any of them starts with understanding the fundamental purpose of prisons. There are four reasons to incarcerate someone:
1. To isolate criminals to prevent them from committing more crimes
2. To punish criminals for committing crimes
3. To deter others from committing crimes
4. To rehabilitate criminals
Let’s use these four reasons as a basis to examine one of the problems of the modern American criminal justice system, namely the imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders. Now, the United States of America has the largest prison population in the world (a fact that’s at least mildly ironic for those of us who live in the Land of the Free). This population has quadrupled since the 1980s but it’s not due to increases in violent crime, it's because of the War on Drugs. Mandatory minimum sentencing and three strikes laws are the primary culprits.
The result? The US prison population is composed of a shockingly high percentage of nonviolent drug offenders.
Do we need to isolate these people (#1)? I would argue that’s unnecessary because they aren’t really hurting anyone with their crimes. What about punishing them (#2)? These people are being punished for breaking the law, but it’s a law that is becoming increasingly unpopular. Hell, California almost legalized marijuana in 2010 with Prop 19. And it’s not deterring others (#3). The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that at least 16.7 million Americans used marijuana in 2009, the highest number ever reported.
But the biggest issue lies in rehabilitation of criminals (#4). Locking up these nonviolent offenders in prison does not rehabilitate them so that they can safely be reintroduced into society as functioning members. In fact it does the opposite. Prison hardens these people making it more likely they commit serious crimes in the future.
Our biggest problem with incarceration in this country is that we’ve gone overboard on punishment (#2) to the detriment of what should be the real reason for our prisons, rehabilitation (#4). Next week we’ll look at some ways we can lighten up on punishment and focus more on the actual rehabilitation of our prisoners.