Is Imprisonment In The Us A Good Punishment Criminology Essay

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is imprisonment in the us a good punishment

Is imprisonment for nonviolent and petty crimes in the United States truly the most fitting punishment? Why are people continuously being so heavily victimized? Is this a wide-spread issue which people consider controversial, if so, how and why do some agree and others not? This question is multifaceted, as it requires examining the judicial process as well as legislative laws which are implemented. To conclude whether this issue is ethical or not, I will use Utilitarianism, Contractarianism, and the American Judicial Code of Ethics.

To test these theories I have researched a variety of statistics, especially from the United States and the United Nations; these charts illustrate the amount of unnecessary incarceration on a global level so as to draw a comparison on where the U.S. stands in comparison to the rest of the world. The most important statistic will be on the rate of needless confinement and sentenced prisoners who have been incarcerated unnecessarily to those have been justly sentenced. Additionally, articles have been an excellent source as they share educated perspectives. Such exposés are more than simply a method of information; it also shares the thoughts and the opinions of the author, which suffices as a professional testimony.

Before presenting any evidence, there are key concepts used in this thesis which need to be explained in order to clarify a single, comprehensive understanding. 'Unnecessary incarceration', 'needless confinement' and like synonyms all essentially describe a prisoner who has been sentenced to an unreasonable punishment based on the crime the offender committed. This may be due to lack of alternatives, such as minimum punishment laws, three strike rules, or any other number of various other reasons which will be recognized later. A high number of said such 'pointless punitive sentences' are people who have been imprisoned for non-violent crimes; a "non-violent" crime is defined as an illegal act which does not use, show potential for, or threaten physical force upon another person. This criterion also includes that a non-violent crime should not result in mental distress during or following the transgression. Crimes such as possession of most narcotics, forgery, counterfeiting, loitering, and immigration are some examples of non-violent crimes.

In two articles of the same issue of The Economist, titled "Too Many Laws, Too Many Prisons" and "Rough Justice in America" the author goes into great detail on how prosecutors twist situations and abuse policies which intimidate offenders and unfairly indict them. "If a defense lawyer offers a witness money to testify… that is bribery. But if a prosecutor legally offers something of far greater value, such as freedom, the potential for wrongful conviction is obvious" ("Too Many Laws," 2010, p. 23). This statement is overwhelmingly true, which is quite astounding once it is acknowledged. Plaintiffs have consistently overlooked the legal policy of mens rea for years; mens rea is defined as not realizing or knowing in advance, that a certain act is illegal. "Badly drafted laws create traps for the unwary" ("Rough Justice in" 2010, p. 22). Crossing state lines while transporting with water hyacinths- which is a genus of flora that requires water to survive; unlicensed dentures; or even knowingly falsifying information to a friend who later repeats your lies [unknowingly] to a federal official are all considered "crimes" and can be heavily sentenced ("Too Many Laws, 2010). While offenders are being locked up as punishment for their non-violent crimes, many citizens are continually adjusting their view on what justice truly is and contemplating if our system of criminalization should be reformed.

Many journalists have suggested that the United States brings more people into the penitentiary system as a form of criminal punishment for considerably trivial crimes, many of which are outdated, irrelevant to modern society, or in general unfamiliar and confusing ("Too Many Laws" 2010). There are countless claims of law enforcement agents and prosecutors abusing and intimidating supposed criminals who inevitably submit to their will out of fear, impatience, and/or lack of money and time. "If a defense lawyer offers a witness money to testify… that is bribery. But a prosecutor can legally offer something of far greater value- his freedom ("Rough Justice in" 2010, p. 22)." Prosecutors no longer seem to care about true justice, just the number of cases they win- a considerable minority of which are versus innocent and helpless individuals. These attorneys are only contributing to the issue of unnecessary incarceration and prison overcrowding. This is but one of many examples of how our legal system has been twisted and corrupted- and for what?

Apparently so that we may prosecute: a collector of orchids who imports them from South America, though his suppliers frequently do not supply the necessary documents for the flora ("Too Many Laws," 2010); two sisters from Mississippi were sentenced to life in prison for stealing a total of $11 in 1993, even though they lacked a criminal record before being convicted (Joyner, 2010); four men who imported Honduran lobsters for violating a policy which Honduras does not enforce, and the Lacey Act- a law meant to prevent the embezzlement and trade of endangered species, or those near to it ("Rough Justice in" 2010). The orchid "kingpin" smuggler- as prosecutors labeled him faced the potential of being imprisoned for ten years. He spent considerable jail time while awaiting trial where he was incarcerated with criminals of every background. Upon discovering his crime, they understandably laughed ("Too Many Laws" 2010). The three of the four lobster hunters were each sentenced to eight years of imprisonment, though only two still remain incarcerated at present ("Rough Justice in" 2010). The Mississippian sisters are still appealing for their release, and have recently gained significant supporters: Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP, and Ken Turner, the attorney who originally arraigned their court case (Joyner, 2010). These are just a few examples of the absurdity to which the American government incarcerates citizens, despite having laws which are supposed to protect people from their own ignorance in matters of the law.

Based on the government website for the Bureau of Prisons, an overwhelming majority of American inmates are being held for non-violent crimes. When combined, nearly seventy percent of convicted criminals were not convicted for violent offenses. Despite this statistic, more than seventy-five percent of felons were punished by five years or more of prison and nearly sixty percent were classified at low or minimum levels of security (U.S. Department of Justice, 2010). This data is astounding as to the how long prisoners are confined based on the average amount of non-violent crimes committed. This data concurs with other claims, which state how such allocations of penalties are wasteful, unnecessary, and often used as a tool of manipulation.

With prison overcrowding becoming an increasingly more significant issue, one may justifiably wonder which specific crimes prisoners are being imprisonment for; and if this is indeed an appropriate punishment. The U.S. is well known for its conservative policy toward incarceration, though many other nations are equally infamous for similar or more traditional punitive tendencies, such as Russia and China. Analyzing the correlation of confinement- which is generally deemed a severe punishment- and the crime committed will enlighten us to the level of ethics our government pursues.

Matt Mauer researches alternative reasons for jail overcrowding such as mandatory minimum sentencing, which directly contributes to unnecessarily long imprisonment for many delinquents. Many states have also enacted the 'baseball rule of thumb' for reoccurring offenders: three strikes and you're out (Mauer, 2010, p. 8). A fair amount of compulsory sentencing is applied via state and federal courts, though it varies with each state, for narcotic related crimes (Mauer, 2010, p.6). Furthermore, Mauer states that, "mandatory penalties particularly are particularly ineffective when addressing drug crimes" (Mauer, 2010, p.7). Based on a survey distributed to federal judges, sixty-two percent believed that overall required minimums were too excessive (Mauer, 2010, p. 40). Mandatory minimum sentencing is defined as being legally required as a judge to punish a criminal with 'x' amount of years of imprisonment based on the crime committed, though judges may increase the punishment at their own discretion. However, the minimums cease to give judges the ability to be lenient, thereby giving an unjust trial to defendants who are constitutionally entitled by the Bill of Rights to a fair trial. The unwarranted length of imprisonment of thousands provides ample evidence of our country's (and others) faults and lack of sense in what true justice is.

The United States has one of the highest numbers of people imprisoned in the world (Mauer, 2010). The American population accounts for only about five percent of

the total world population, however their incarcerated population amounts to nearly one-quarter the global rate of imprisonment. Additionally, the cost is astronomical: over $68.75 billion is spent annually on overall corrections necessities. On a daily basis, the U.S. government spends about $33 on the typical inmate; however elderly prisoners cost nearly $100 ("The Facts: Incarceration," 2008). Based on a 2007 study, it is estimated that within 211 nations, there are approximately nine million peopled currently incarcerated- nearly five million of whom are being held in the United States, China, and Russia (Johnston & Wilson, 2007). Table 1 shows the rate of various nations' level of imprisonment. Although this graph may seem to tell information contrary to the data from above, but one must be observant when reading such diagrams. The chart only gives the rate of people imprisoned per 100,000 people, but it does not compare these numbers to the actual population of each nation. For instance, China has a population of 1.3 billion people; the United States has 310 million; and Russia has slightly less than half of the U.S. populace. Without knowledge of each country's general populace, it would appear that South Africa has significantly more prisoners in confinement than China; though in reality they only have a population of fewer than 50 million people (Central Intelligence, 2010). Using mathematics, one would be able to calculate that- based on these figures- China has 1.18 million prisoners while South Africa has only just over 165,000 incarcerated. These facts all support evidence that the penitentiary system is many nations, not just the United States and United Kingdom, are imprisoning a significant portion of their constituency.

Considering that over fifty percent of American convicts are imprisoned for

narcotic related crimes (Department of Justice, 2010), sanctioning marijuana would dramatically reduce prison overcrowding and unnecessary confinement, while simultaneously saving federal funds which would otherwise be allocated to the penitentiary system.

In regards to general waste and misuse, the amount of time and money spent supporting prisoners' lives is stultifying. According to The Economist, one in every one hundred Americans is imprisoned, which is by far the greatest amount, per capita, in comparison to any other nation ("Rough justice in, 2010, p. 21).

The government of the United Kingdom is also facing issues on jail overcrowding which has lead them to look at the reasons why. In a 2007 article of The Telegraph, Home Secretary John Reid has been dealing with increasing pressure and criticisms from groups such as the Howard League for Penal Reform. One of the group's representatives, Frances Crook, was quoted saying, "... [we are] locking up too many people in prison who don't need to be there." Statistics showed that the rate of imprisonment increased significantly over ten years while the conservative political party, the Labour Party, was in power. Not only are they imprisoning more people, but their law enforcement has become less effective as well. In 1954, one-third of robberies were prosecuted compared to 2007 where only one of every twenty-two people has been convicted. On a per capita basis, the United Kingdom has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, about 148 people out of every one hundred thousand. Although the rate is just one-fifth of America's, it is still significant on the global scale, and especially in continental comparison. England itself has the highest ratio even within the United Kingdom, which consists of the nations England, the North of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales- all except the North of Ireland which constitute Great Britain. These figures have only ever been rivaled by Spain, who fell short by approximately three people per one hundred thousand. Eastern European nations have a significantly higher percentage compared to their Western Europe counterparts, with Poland at 230 and Estonia at 333 per one hundred thousand people, each (Johnston & Wilson, 2007).

British Parliamentary Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has been advocating for penal reform as he sees continuously more people being incarcerated on trumped up and unreasonable charges. He admits that dangerous criminals do need to be incarcerated, though he also stated that, "…locking up more and more people for longer, without actively seeking to change them is, in my opinion, what you would expect of Victorian England." It is widely agreed upon that Clarke is not wrong; many people- both Americans and British- agree that alternatives are needed in order to effectually reduce crime. Another British Parliamentary spokesman claims that there are simply too many repeat offenders of minor crimes who coincidentally are also not being successfully reintroduced into society. Currently, Clarke, among other politicians, are beginning to orchestrate plans to reform the penal system and hope to soon implement it ("Prison Overcrowding in").

The American and British governments are relatively transparent and do not seem to hold significant power over their constituents, however constituents seem to have more weight over policy makers, which is unusual in democratic societies. In some nations, which tend to much less democratic- such as China- the government is able to manipulate the masses towards whichever policy has been predetermined so that they willingly abide by it.

As you can see on Table 2.1, about sixty-eight percent of criminals are sentenced with imprisonment for non-violent crimes. Drug offences alone constitutes over half of all offences recorded. Table 2.2 demonstrates that almost seventy-five

percent of overall convictions are sentenced to at least five years of imprisonment; one can assume that most of the non-violent crimes committed are reprimanded with such lengthy punishments. These diagrams support the theories from above, stating that the United States incarcerates an inordinate amount of people for acts which should not be crimes (U.S. Department of Justice, 2010). Crime statistics for Britain differ significantly from American data. Arguably, a little over twenty-five percent of crimes committed in Britain are non-violent, and that is assuming that most automobile theft is requires some sort of aggression. Also, the crime rates vary considerably which implies that not every free, modern, democratic nation has the same internal issues. One reason for this may be that Britain has prohibited the possession of any firearms, making possible homicide more difficult as assailant would have to be in fairly close range of the victim. In fact, murder with firearms accounts for less than one percent, despite fourteen reported cases ("British Crime Statistics,"). Immigration is a significant issue for Americans, which is a little over one-tenth of crimes convicted (U.S. Department of Justice 2010), though non-citizens consist of about twenty-seven percent of prisoners in federal prisons ("The Facts: Incarceration," 2008). This data, along with accompanying charts, demonstrates the sizable number of non-violent convictions within the United States, and even the United Kingdom. Though the U.K. was calculated to have only about one-quarter of its overall offenses to be non-violent, that is nonetheless a substantial percentage.

Additionally, the selection of judges, both local and state, dramatically affects the levels of incarceration and gives considerable insight as to who is against penal reform. In the United States, judges are either elected or appointed. According to the American Judiciary website, judges are elected in twenty-three states (by either a partisan or non-partisan vote), sixteen states appoint judges, two nominate them followed by an election of nominees, and ten states use a mixture of methods- generally appointment and election depending on what the office is that the judge will be fulfilling ("Methods of Judicial,"). Surveys show that citizens continuously vote judges into office who are the hardest on crime, overlooking the fact that the high imprisonment rates do not imply lower crime rates within communities. In Britain, judges are not elected but appointed, so constituents are unable to reveal as much in regards to their personal opinions on unwarranted confinement (Liptak, 2008). Potentially the most important variable is the influence of the media. I could even use myself as an example, as I was first introduced to the issue of unnecessary incarceration via a political news magazine. Media is incredibly influential in other ways as well: watching on television; reading in daily papers, journals, and/or magazines; in addition to listening can persuade viewers to a very specific viewpoint in nearly any issue.

This article also recognizes how elected officials can use the penitentiary system to their advantage as a devious means of campaigning. If constituents see their hardened policies towards criminals, they are more likely to be re-elected; omitting relevant information like the fact that crime rate is not lowering.

The three strike rule and mandatory minimum sentencing, both which are implemented in many states, also needs to be reformed. As many citizens feel that this policy robs judges of their duty to give a fair trial to defendants by not being able to punish them as each judge finds most appropriate; judges represent a considerable amount of those be also believe this (Mauer, 2010). This is considerably more noticeable in the United States than in the United Kingdom, as over twenty-three states elect state and local judges ("Methods of Judicial"). This is relevant as constituents consistently vote for judges who are the strictest against crime, often not realizing that more incarceration does not lead to less crime in the community (Liptak, 2008).

The penitentiary and justice systems are severely lacking in alternatives to imprisonment. Although many local officials utilize probationary punishments, either for first-time minor offenders or as a monitoring system for prisoners being released back into society; it is not a solution for convictions that require a more severe punishment though do not necessarily call for imprisonment. In the United States, approximately one in every 31 adults are categorized as being monitored "under correctional supervision" ("Too Many Laws," 2010). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has recently advocated for the American government to reduce incarceration levels by "less use of remand imprisonment… [though if unavoidable] should be held as briefly as possible; increase availability of alternate sentencing to prison, such as fines, probation, community service; if [offenders] must be imprisoned, it should be as brief as possible" (Walmsley, 2003).

Utilitarianism is based on the idea that the greatest good should be brought for the greatest number. This could determine several opposing ethical conclusions. One could easily argue that any action which does not harm the community or an individual, it should not be met with such harsh retribution. Therefore, acts which only harm oneself would not be punishable by society. Utilitarianism could also determine another ethical outcome which would likely declare an opposing conclusion. It could easily be determined that the law is implemented for each community's best interest in mind, and thus any retribution is just and appropriate; therefore implying that such sentences are justified.

In John Rawls' theory, Contractarianism, he states that fairness determines ethics. In an attempt to maintain neutrality, a survey conducted reached the following conclusions: a majority of people agreed that it is not fair to condemn a person to correctional facilities for the possession of certain illegal narcotics, especially marijuana. However, there was some disunity among other, more harmful drugs, such as methamphetamines and cocaine. Overall, people mostly agreed that such narcotics can be exceedingly dangerous to others but, that users should be rehabilitated instead of imprisoned. The same majority also concluded that violent crimes were generally the only convictions worthy of a lengthy, harsh imprisonment term.

In viewing whether or not the actions and/or decisions of judicial officials towards plaintiffs is ethical, using their own code will be applied. American Judicial Ethics is defined as, 'an ethical code which sets basic principles by which judges of court should abide by' which ensures that a judge is acting within these guidelines and not abusing said power. However, there are several notable inconsistencies: based on this code, judges are not permitted to engage in public politics, though in several constituencies judges are elected in the same manner as a senator or mayor would be. Although this varies throughout states and counties, it nonetheless violates their ethical code- as it would incentivize judges to conduct policy according to public opinion.

Chart 1

Chart 2.1

Chart 2.2


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