Abstract A major dilemma of criminal justice in a democratic society is to process suspects and punish law violators in a humane and rational manner. Through the development of the “Get Tough on Crime” movement, political and social pressures have resulted in overcrowded jails and prisons. Budgets have swelled to accommodate larger populations of inmates, without money left over to develop reforms, or preventive measures through rehabilitation.
As the public places demands on politicians for longer and longer sentences for offenders, prisons will continue to operate in the warehouse mode, without the means to pursue other alternatives to incarceration As we enter the 21st century it is believed we will continue to see a shift from the preference for punishment to one of treatment and rehabilitation. Regardless of what politicians, correction officials or criminal justice entities as whole see as the solution, the direction and future of criminal justice depends on the publics perception and societal expectations for solutions.
Whether these solutions be deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation, restoration or retribution as sentencing goals society will dictate the direction prisons go, not jail administrators or policy makers. As seen in legislation through tough on crime measures, the expectation of society for prisons is to provide incarceration and retribution. Until these expectations change and the pendulum swings within the court of public opinion, other measures will most certainly be hindered if not doomed to failure, lacking support or funding to see them through. The realization that what “society” wants will more often occur than what the “system” or professionals within it want, is at the basis of this paper.
The publics perception of prisons function is based much on glamorization by television or the misinformation of the media. The perception of prisons function does completely fall in line with the publics expectations for prisons, in part because the public or society as a whole lack a real understanding of prisons and prison life. Depending on the background of the individual the expectations for prisons can be very different. Many elderly citizens in society for example see prison as an awful place that would make anyone who had to go there change their ways.
In reality this is not the case. The alternating preference for punishment or treatment predates the use of prisons as a sentence. Shifts in the cycle from treatment to punishment can be seen in the development of workhouses or in the development of the English Poor Laws. As the pendulum has swung back and forth within the prison system preference for treatment produced indeterminate sentences, prison societies, probation and parole as well as the reformatory movement, with firm discipline and education defined as part of the treatment process associated with prisons. (Mckelvey, 1977).
The varying Era’s in sentencing have seen the implementation of vastly differing sentencing objectives. These objectives mirror societies expectations placed on prisons and the criminal justice system as a whole. Offenders who had completed these varying sentencing reforms implemented during each Era were supposed to come out of prison rehabilitated or reformed. The belief that prison itself detoured offenders by the mere environment alone, so as to persuade them not to commit crime again.
The societal expectations placed on prisons is no different than ones own individual goals that if set to high can lead to discouragement and failure. If goals for prisons are set so high they are unachievable, expectations for achieving these goals in general will diminish over time, until no expectation for success exists. We are seeing these feelings of discouragement and failure today in societies view of prisons. No longer do we have goals of rehabilitation, deterrence or restoration, but our goals primarily focus on incarceration and retribution. Americans particularly are seeking “an eye for an eye” in there approach to prisons and what they consider “justice”.
Although we are seeing reform movements within the prison system today they have not garnered the support of the political machine which mirrors what society as a whole seeks. As long as society as a whole, seeks retribution and incarceration through tough on crime initiatives such as “exceptional sentence mandates”, “habitual offender laws”, “three strikes laws” and a list of sentencing “enhancements” which goals are to add time served in prison for offenders, funding will fall short of any reform or rehabilitation measures. Societal expectations have driven the prison system to the brink of destruction.
Overcrowding has become epidemic, as states and the federal government scramble to locate funding to build new prisons. The prison population has tripled since 1980 and as of 1999 the nation’s state and federal prisons held 1,302,019 inmates. Some state and federal programs have been developed to reduce overcrowding but run into problems with selective incarceration principles. In 1997, for example, the U. S. Supreme Court ordered the state of Florida to release as many as 2500 inmates- many of whom had been convicted of violent crimes- under the gain time program set by the state in 1983.
Although the program was established to relieve overcrowding a change in public sentiment caused Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth to revoke gain time which had already been earned (Schmalleger, 2001). The U. S. Supreme Court overruled the state and held them to the originally provisions of the gain time policy which led to the release of numerous violent offenders. The experience in Florida caused that state and others to further tighten restricted on early release programs following the “just deserts” model of sentencing.
As the differing theories of crime causation have emerged, the principles involved in the administration of prisons and reform have slowly adhered to these new ideas. Often said “if you hear it times enough it becomes true” can be seen in societies adaptation of new ideas and measures over time. Although from a historical perspective never before have prisons had to deal with the immediacy of crime and criminal justice issues being broadcast around the world as it is today with mass media. The media which is driven by a desire to sell, more often relays the bad or horrific events in society to get attention.
This practice may help sell newspapers or television time but it as distorts factual data that shows violent crime overall has been on the decline. As the media vies for exposure within society, it changes the publics perspective regarding the amount of crime that is occurring, as well as the type of crime occurring. The distortion that occurs of the actual crime statistics (incidents per thousand) and types of crimes (homicide, rape, assaults) manifests itself in public pressure placed on politicians for tougher sentencing, which snow balls into legislation creating incarceration directed laws and policies.
Conclusion As long as societal goals influence public policy that are based on bad or distorted information from the media, true prison reform or relief cannot occur. Currently society wants to “lock em up and through away the key”. A decision that has not worked and has driven the prison system to the brink of bankruptcy. The pendulum will swing, as it always has through the various sentencing Eras, but will the swing come too late this time to avoid disaster? Can we recover from the publics perception of prisons and the expectations placed on them, that have not worked?
Only time will tell. As someone who has worked within the criminal justice system both in corrections and law enforcement, I see these challenges as ones every area of criminal justice, courts, probation, law enforcement and corrections will have to deal with. This class has provided a sound outline with personnel issues to budgeting. It has touched on corrections and law enforcement. I see the corrections problem as one we will all have to face in the future to deal with the sky rocketing costs of doing business as usual.
If we want reform to occur and desire different alternatives for the non-violent offenders or drug abusers caught in the tough on crime legislation, we must become better spokesman for the cause. Prisons have a place within society and the publics perception of what is needed will drive our availability for options in the future. If prison administrators and advocates for reform are able to convince society that new methods need to be established in place of, or in addition too, incarceration, for low-risk offenders, the system can survive. Without a buy in from society implementing these changes in administration philosophy the system is surely doomed to failure. Reference Schmallenger, Frank (2001).
Criminal Justice Today: An introductory Text for the 21st Century. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey Muraskin, Rosalyn; Roberts, Albert (1999). Visions for Change: Crime and Justice in the Twenty-First Century. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey The Sentencing Project, Crime, Punishment and Public Opinion: Summary of recent studies and their implications for sentencing policy. http://www. sentencingproject. org/brief/pub1005. pdf.