The state of Massachusetts has a reputation of being fairly liberal. It is even known forhaving one of the lowest ten incarceration rates in the country (the Sentencing Project). According to the Sentencing Project, the state has a rate of 200 prisoners in jail per population of 100,000. That sounds very impressive compared to state of Georgia’s rate of 547/100,000 \and the nation’s overall rate of 760/100,000. That is until you consider some the European and Asian rates: “Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and Britain–with a rate among the highest–has 153.” (Time).
Our state should not strive simply for the status of one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. We should be working towards having one of the lowest incarceration rates overall.
In this era of globalization, the United States is not an island alone in the world, insignificant to other countries. As an economic superpower and supposed leader in human rights, the world sees how we treat our offenders, and some have followed suit. The British judicial system has shifted from its’ 1991 Criminal Justice Act, which “recognized the limited impact of incarceration on crime and called for a halt of the growth of the prison system,” through the work government officials Tony Blair and Michael Howard (Mauer 14). England and Wales together reached a prison population of almost 85,000 in 2010, a ninety percent increase since 1993 (www.Parliament.uk). This extends beyond Britain, however, as proposals are made in the Czech Republic for a “three-strikes” policy similar to that of California (Mauer 14).
If it was not enough that we are misallocating resources by caging up our criminals instead of addressing the problems within our society, our foolishness is now spreading. We must consider the impact our choices make upon other countries around the world. If we do not reduce the disparities between international incarceration rates and our own by decreasing our prison populations, we may end up inspiring increases in other countries.
Mauer, Marc. Race to Incarcerate. New York: The New Press, 2006. Print.
Xavier McElrath-Bey spent thirteen years in the Illinois Department of Corrections as an accomplice to gang murder. He was thirteen when he was locked up. Few people would argue that McElrath-Bey should have gotten out scot-free. If accomplices to murder do not deserve jail time, then what kind of criminals do?
To many, this is where the story ends. By locking up McElrath-Bey, the murder victim is vindicated. The case is closed, the villain is locked away, and the story has a happy and fulfilling ending. However, the truth is more complicated. McElrath-Bey will not be in prison for his entire life—he will be released when he is twenty-six. What sort of person do we want McElrath-Bey to be when he walks out into society?
Most inmates spend their time engaging in mindless prison labor. They do not have the opportunity to learn or further their job skills. Recently released prisoners are unable to find jobs or take advantage of public benefits, such as food stamps and public housing. Is it any wonder that over 40% of offenders return to prison within three years? (Pew Center on the States) As Take Part eloquently states, America not only locks people up, but “[throws] away the keys—the keys, that is, to rehabilitation and reintegrating to free society.”
Prison education programs are a great investment. According to Take Part, every dollar in higher education programs sees an 18 dollar investment. McElrath-Bey earned an advanced degree in counseling and human services from Roosevelt University (he also had a 4.0 GPA with his bachelors degree in social sciences). Now McElrath-Bey works with Northwestern University to advocate for mental health treatment for juvenile delinquents.
We can’t just lock up criminals and forget about them. What kind of people do we want to reintegrate to free society?
New York City’s crime rates have gone down, and yet fewer inmates are in jail. What gives? According to this New York Times article, the Big Apple has been focusing on treatment and rehabilitative programs “intended to help deter the return of former prisoners to jail.” The results have been noticeable: there has been a 32% decrease in the city’s incarceration rate from the past decade’s. The city’s incarceration rate is 27% lower than the national rate.
The data in New York City shows that incarceration rates are not necessarily tied to crime rates. The prevailing notion of justice is that incarceration will stop crime. This doesn’t seem the case here. We should dismantle the simplistic belief that just locking away criminals will solve the problem.
The New York Times has attributed the city’s success to a proliferation of rehabilitative programs for prisoners. According to the Pew Center on the States, over 40% of offenders return to prison within three years. With policies that bar recently released prisoners from public housing and employment, it is certainly difficult to stay out of crime. Programs that teach inmates job skills and policies that allow inmates to reenter society keep released prisoners out of jail.
The city should be applauded for its efforts. It has, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg remarked, “proven that… successfully preventing crimes and breaking cycles of criminal activity can save thousands from a life of cycling through the criminal justice system.” We can only hope that these kinds of policies become implemented on a federal level.