In American society today, nonviolent offenders are prosecuted in much the same way violent offenders are. In California our justice system uses the three strikes law, which means habitual offenders; no matter the nature of the crime receive mandatory extended jail sentences after their second offense. While these crimes which they commit are wrong, the harm they inflict upon society is very low, hence the ratio of punishment to crime should be much lower. Using these ideals the prison system becomes overcrowded with nonviolent individuals such as drug addicts and shoplifters.
Therefore the prisons move away from being rehabilitation centers, and become merely a place to hold those deemed as convicts until their sentences are up. This situation creates both an injustice for the people wrongly incarcerated, and for those who are inside to be re-assimilated into society at the end of their stay. To end this problem, alternatives to jail must be found for nonviolent crimes such as shoplifting and drug use. By placing nonviolent offenders into the prison system for prolonged periods of time society adds to the problem of prisons acting as long term babysitters instead of rehabilitation centers.
This in turn has many ill effects in regards to the greater good of society. Angela Davis, an advocate against the prison system states “Given the recent emergence of supermaximum-security prisons … in general which are being divested of educational, recreational, and other programs historically associated with rehabilitation projects. ” To accommodate the ever growing prison populations, funding has been cut from rehabilitation projects, and placed into filling the prisons up to capacity.
By simply reducing the sentences of those convicts who are inside for nonviolent crimes this process could be avoided altogether and society would be far better off in the long run. Those convicts who would remain inside the prisons would be able to learn valuable skills which in turn they could use to be successful in the outside world without committing further crimes. To combat the increasing number of convicts in the prison system the states which have an excess number of prisoners have had to turn to the privatization of prisons.
Companies such as Corrections Corporation of America, and Wackenhut Corrections Corporation are prisons setup as businesses with one goal in mind, to maximize profit; this completely undermines the idea that went behind the creation of penitentiaries. Angela Davis notes in her article “The penitentiary-the historical manifestation of the prison as a site for punishment (rather than as a holding facility for people awaiting trial and punishment) – was conceived architecturally and theoretically as a plan for the moral reformation of the individuals.
By using these prisons to “maximize profit” the penitent individuals never learn their lesson, or are given tools to succeed in the outside world. This relates to Beccaria’s beliefs on the purposes of punishments, he believes that “Punishments and the method of inflicting them should be chosen that, … will make the most effective and lasting impression on men’s minds and inflict the least torment on the body of the criminal,” (23). Therefore with the use of this flawed system a convict never truly learns his lesson, yet is incarcerated in a cell by a company which benefits from keeping him there for as long as possible.
Despite all these facts which so easily refute the unjust imprisonment of nonviolent individuals, we continue to draw them into the prison system. The imprisonment of nonviolent offenders is also discriminatory to citizens who happen to be on the lower end of the economic scale. Angela Davis highlights this problem in her article “different criminalization of drug use means that those unfortunate enough to become addicted to crack can be arrested and thrown in jail, while their middle class counterparts, who have access to licit drugs such as Valium or Prozac, are free to indulge their drug habits.
This is almost like saying that it is deemed acceptable to abuse Valium and Prozac, yet not crack. Crack use may be seen as more of a problem to the government due to the fact that those who abuse it do not have the funds to enter into private rehab centers. Yet this extra cost to the government does not justify the harsh law which throws crack addicts into jail, but not prescription drug abusers. Sending these people to overcrowded prisons does not allow them to receive the help they desperately need to get their lives back on track.
This refers back to Beccaria’s interpretations of the purpose of punishments; he would deem it just to send a person to jail for drug use, yet unjust because while there we provide them with nothing to deter them from using again when they get out. Another form of discrimination towards the non-affluent citizens of America is exhibited in states that enforce the three strikes law. The three strikes law adds extended jail time to people’s sentences no matter the nature of the crime; which is especially unfair to the homeless in our society.
Homeless people do not have much money; so due to this they are more prevalent to commit crimes such as shoplifting and loitering. By committing these acts three times they will be in violation of the three strikes law, tossed into jail where they will receive no rehabilitation, and become a burden to the taxpayers. While this is not ethical it is currently the only option available within our justice system to deal with these nonviolent offenders. There are many means available to restore justice to this situation in which nonviolent offenders are thrown into jail with rapists, murderers and many other violent individuals.
Instead of throwing nonviolent drug users into a prison’s population why not setup some sort of self funded rehab system? The addicts would first go there as patients and receive some sort of treatment for their illness, and after a recovery period of about a year they would become supporters of other addicts. They would remain there for a set number of years helping others to become sober, until it is seen that they have been rehabilitated. After this time they would be released back into the free world with skills to help them to become productive members of society.
The same is true for the homeless people’s situation; to restore justice to this not much money needs to be spent. Simply setup a shelter with homeless people working the various shifts and jobs, for their labors they would receive food and would able to be monitored by government officials so that they would not commit the same crimes. These are just a proposed means to solve the current situation within the prison system; using these methods vagrants will receive food, not drugs, and addicts will receive treatment for their bad habits.
In society today, nonviolent offenders are unjustly treated much the same way as violators of capital crimes. With just a few missteps nonviolent drugs users are thrown into jail with rapists, murderers, and other offenders of violent crimes. By sending these people to jail using the three strikes law we are essentially overcrowding the prison system with people who should not be there. This removes funding for rehabilitation of the people that should be in jail, and does not allow anyone to ever become valuable citizens of society. To break this cycle the government must find alternative means of deterrence for nonviolent criminal offenders.