Crimes such as drug possession, petty theft, and forgery are non-violent, sometimes victimless crimes, yet over half the United States’ prison population consists of these type of offenders. Most prisons in the United States house more prisoners than they were built to hold. The United States spends more than forty billion dollars each year on incarceration. Prison overcrowding seems to be the reason that many offenders are kept out of prison, sentenced to short prison terms, and released long before their sentence is complete. Child molesters, armed robbers, and rapists are often paroled as a solution to easing prison overcrowding. Meanwhile, some first-time offenders that commit non-violent crimes are not given the opportunity to be paroled and sometimes end up serving more time than offenders that commit violent crimes.
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Alternative sentencing can serve as a remedy to prison overcrowding and unfair punishment. Alternative sentencing is a program designed to make punishments fit the crime. Rather than sending a non-violent offender to prison, offenders are alternatively sentenced to punishments such as probation, electronic monitoring, community service, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Alternative sentencing can help to keep an offender from re- offending, thus decreasing the prison population and spending less taxpayer money on prisons. It can also help inmates who have completed their sentence transition back into society successfully. Some states, like Pennsylvania, are reducing prison sentences and releasing non-violent prisoners in order for them to participate in alternative sentencing programs. However, in order to receive alternative sentencing, offenders must meet certain qualifications such as not having a lengthy criminal record, not having committed a serious felony, and must not pose a risk to themselves or the community.
According to Bennet, “Brandeis University’s National Institute for Sentencing Alternatives studied North Carolina prisoner’s criminal histories and its director, Mike Corrigan, said his staff found that 20 to 30 percent of North Carolina prisoners were likely to be safely punished outside prison (Bennet, par 10).” Institutions like Brandeis make recommendations to state legislators for alternative sentencing programs. . Unfortunately, state legislators can pass laws that prevent judges from using alternative sentencing especially during election years. Politicians that run their campaigns on the “get tough on crime” slogan, make it difficult for alternative programs to stay in existence or new programs to be created. Candidates running for the position of judge do not support these programs and judges that are up for re-election tend not to sentence alternatively during election years. One program, however, that most “get tough on crime” politicians are in favor of is boot-camp for young male offenders. This program was started in Georgia and is now being used by 11 states and is said to be working effectively. Boot camp is a much cheaper alternative to prison. It uses a military type of discipline that trains young men to not want to choose to live a life of crime and are less likely to re-offend when released from the program.
Other examples of alternative punishment are community service, which can be very cost effective because it uses offenders to perform public labor. It can save money for counties, cities, and states by using this free labor. A punishment for alcohol related crimes like DUI is having a breathalyzer installed on an offender’s vehicle which only allows the engine to start after a person blows into it an has no alcohol on his or her breath. This is paid for by the offender and can be a successful deterrent for the offender to consume alcohol, while keeping drunk drivers off the road. Sentencing a petty thief to work a full time job and use his salary to pay restitution to his victim can be a deterrent for an offender to commit another burglary. A drug possession charge where a person is caught with a small amount of drugs can be punished using a plea deal from the prosecutor to have the person voluntarily enroll in a substance abuse program. People convicted of tax evasion can be sentenced to a fine and probation rather than being given a prison sentence. Non-violent offenders have to be willing to commit and must want to be show signs of rehabilitation in order for alternative sentencing programs to be effective. Some programs require an offender to retain employment, submit to random drug screenings, electronic monitoring, and weekly meetings with probation officers.
An individual’s circumstances and environment can be an influence in committing a crime. Someone born into poverty and living in a drug infested community, is more likely to commit a crime than a person who is brought up in better surroundings. These facts are often taken into consideration when a judge hands down a sentence. Because of this, some people oppose alternative punishment. Living in a community that has a high crime rate often leads an offender to re-offend when he is released. Other circumstances like mental illness can be a reason for an individual to commit a crime. Mental illness is another factor that is taken into consideration when a judge hands down a sentence. California has implemented a law that allows alternative sentencing for some veterans. An example of this is an ex-marine that served in the war in Iraq, suffering from and extreme case of post traumatic stress disorder. He walked into a bank unarmed and used a note demanding money from a bank teller. According to the law, the judge could have sentenced him to 5 years in prison, but he was instead placed in a treatment facility. In the article “Coming Home”, Sample states that “In addition to combat vets with PTSD, the law applies to those suffering from substance abuse or unspecified psychological ailments (Sample, par 4).”
Many lawyers actually advertise alternative punishment as a means of obtaining clients. These lawyers make every effort to keep an offender out of prison. Some find this to be a despicable means of advertisement as it lures criminals to certain lawyers in order to avoid a prison sentence. Advertisements of this type are useful for an offender that has no criminal record and is convicted of a misdemeanor. The lawyer can help a client like this to receive punishment such as probation, community service, electronic monitoring, or substance abuse treatment. After completing his or her alternative sentence, this offender will more than likely be rehabilitated and less likely to re-offend. On the other hand, alternative sentencing is not likely if these lawyers defend individuals charged with a felony and have lengthy criminal records.
Some states such as California and Michigan, utilize a Jail Overcrowding Task Force. The main purpose for this task force is come up with ways to use prison resources to prevent prison overcrowding and save taxpayer dollars for more useful programs such as health care and education. The down side to this is that some counties utilize early release programs for prisoners with very short sentences and do not require offenders to participate in any type community service or rehabilitation program. On the other hand, there are work furlough programs that include electronic monitoring. This is a more acceptable means of alternative punishment. Inmates with short sentences are allowed to obtain employment while serving their sentence. A portion of the offender’s paycheck is garnished and paid to the state as a means of paying for his or her incarceration… To further alleviate prison overcrowding, electronic monitoring is sometime allowed for these individuals so they are not utilizing a prison bed that can be used for a violent criminal. A down side to this is the program was expanded and now allows unemployed individuals to participate in electronic monitoring without paying any money to the state.
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According to Edge, “some judges have returned to the colonial sentence of shaming to punish people convicted of crimes.” (83). This type of punishment is called public notice. Public notice is a punishment that publicly shames the criminal in an attempt to change his or her attitude and conduct. An excellent example of this is a judge ordering a man convicted of accidental homicide to parade in front of a bar with a sign that read, “I killed two people while driving drunk.” This public ridicule often deters a criminal from re-offending.
The Victim-Offender Mediation Program (VOMP) is a program that involves the victim of a crime. Offenders have a face-to-face meeting with the victim or victim’s family members and a trained mediator. The offender is told how his or her crime affected the victim and/or family. This can make the offender feel remorse for his crime and explain why he committed the crime and even apologize for it. This program is often successful with juvenile offenders that commit non-violent crimes.
In conclusion, each state has its own rules for the punishment of criminals called sentencing guidelines, which are sentencing policies prosecutors and judges use for people convicted of serious misdemeanors and felonies. The crime and the criminal’s previous criminal history are considered when a judge hands down a sentence. People that oppose alternative sentencing argue that an individual’s circumstances are unique and should be considered during sentencing, otherwise there is a possibility of re-offending. People in favor of alternative sentencing argue that otherwise, judges could sentence offenders to different punishments for the same crime. The end result is that prison overcrowding in the United States will never end unless alternative sentencing programs are utilized for non-violent offenders. Prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes and who have lengthy criminal records should not even be considered for alternative sentences.
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