Nonviolent Offenders – Is Incarceration the Answer?
“It’s really clear that the most effective way to turn a nonviolent person into a violent one is to send them to prison,” says Harvard University criminologist James Gilligan. The American prison system takes nonviolent offenders and makes them live side-by-side with hardened killers. The very nature of prison, no matter people view it, produces an environment that is inevitably harmful to its residents.
America locks up five times more of its’ population than any other nation in the world. Due to prison overcrowding, prisoners are currently sleeping on floors, in tents, in converted broom closets and gymnasiums, or even in double or triple bunks in cells, which were designed for one inmate. Why is this happening? The U.S. Judicial System has become so succumbed to the ideal that Imprisonment is the most visibly form of punishment. The current structure of this system is failing terribly. To take people, strip them of their possessions and privacy, expose them to violence on a daily basis, restrict their quality of life to a 5x7ft cell, and deprive them of any meaning to live. This scenario is a standard form of punishment for violent offenders, although not suitable for nonviolent offenders.
Today, almost 70% of all prisoners are serving time for nonviolent offenses. U.S. States are spending an average of $100 million per year on new prisons and all U.S. taxpayers front the bill for a system that is not working (Carson). Why should we force taxpayers to pay to keep nonviolent criminals sitting in prison cells where they become bitter, aggressive, and more likely to repeat their offenses when released? The answer is we shouldn’t, there are more reliable forms of punishment available, and rehabilitation and restitution are two alternatives I firmly believe are most effective than incarceration.
Nonviolent criminals should be punished differently. This is because nonviolent criminals do not learn from the misery of being in cells with violent inmates. Drug offenders for example are a public health problem, not public safety problem, and nonviolent offenders can be properly educated. We offer convicts no opportunities to learn compassion or take responsibility for what they have done, nor make restitution or offer atonement to their victims in any practical ways.
Nonviolent offenders should not be placed in institutions, such as prisons, which are full of violent murderers and rapists. Approximately 240,000 brutal rapes occur in our prison systems each year (Lozoff). Most of the victims are young, nonviolent male inmates, many of them teenaged first offenders. They are traumatized beyond imagination. Most of these inmates are nonviolent criminals who cannot or will not defend themselves. Unfortunately, this results in many of those nonviolent offenders turning violent by the time they leave prison.
A gruesome example of the ill-effects incarceration they have on a nonviolent person. A young man was once arrested for participating in a peaceful march that turned ugly when some young thugs started hurling objects at police. In the commotion he was arrested and was jailed in lieu of paying a fine in protest for his moral beliefs. He spent a forty-eight hour period incarcerated, in this time he was savagely raped by numerous violent prisoners. This savage and inhumane attack occurred over twenty years ago, and since then he has had years of therapy, and yet he has never recovered emotionally (Lozoff). His entire life still centers on the decision of one prison superintendent to place him in a violent cellblock in order to scare him and teach him a lesson. He cannot function properly in society; he is mentally scared and still to this day suffers ill effects crippling him of a normal life. If this is a normal outcome of incarcerating nonviolent offenders then this is not the answer.
Prisons are not scaring offenders away from crime; they are incapacitating them so they are hardly fit for anything else. The criminal justice system is keeping non-violent offenders, who offer little threat to the community, incarcerated for unduly long periods of time, with no opportunity for effective treatment, and no meaningful interaction with family members (NYSCC). In my opinion preventive programs, rehabilitation, and restitution is necessary when punishing nonviolent offenders. The purpose of sentencing is to effectively punish a person for their offense against society, and provide treatment for the adjustment of returning an offender as a constructive member of society.
Treatment is one answer, to rehabilitate a convicted offender to a constructive place in society through educational or vocational training or therapy. Community control programs offer solutions that can divert some nonviolent offenders from prison and place them under strict supervision, by use of probation, house arrest and electronic monitoring, community service, hallway house, or substance abuse treatment when deemed necessary. These programs involve scheduled supervision, restrictions on daily lives, and completion of community work hours, work programs, and rehabilitative service through outside agencies. These alternatives to incarceration are known as intermediate sentences. The punishment should fit the crime; by using these types of intermediate sentences the prison system can maintain expensive prison cells for violent offenders.
If nonviolent drug addicts are not being traumatized by the violence of prison, they are simply clogging our nations prisons. Drugs are a public health problem, not a criminal justice problem. Ninety-One percent of the federal drug convicts were sentenced to serve time, compared to Ninety-One percent of violent felony convicts. Showing that the Federal Prisons in the U.S. on average are housing an even amount of violent and nonviolent prisoners. Without drug offenders, our prisons would have more than enough room to hold dangerous criminals. As a result, we wouldn’t need to build a single new prison, saving us $5 billion a year (Weber). If we spent a fraction of that on rehabilitation centers and community revitalization programs, we would begin to put drug dealers out of business in the only way that will last, by drying up their market.
A 1997 study by RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center concluded that treatment is the most effective tool in the fight against drug abuse, finding that treatment reduces fifteen times more serious crime than incarceration (Legal Aid). Studies sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have shown that drug treatment programs, on the whole, are successful in reducing the levels of drug abuse and crime among participants and increasing their ability to hold a job (Legal Aid). Education is another answer to incarceration.
I am a firm believer in the justice system during the early 1900’s “Rise of Progressives” that treatment must focus on the individual. In the U.S. society today poverty and lower-level income families are on the rise, individuals are victims of their environment they were born and raised. Crime is a survival technique for some people, but there is no excuse for criminal behavior. Instead, nonviolent offenders need to known punishment will teach reformation. Restitution programs keep offenders from prison and institute ways the offenders can pay back the victims for their crimes. Work programs for offenders where they must relinquish a certain amount of their earnings to the victim of their crime until the debt of their crime is repaid. A court can determine how much money the criminal owes to the victim. This places accountability on the offender, and a suitable deterrence for the crime. Some offenders view jail or prison as a place to get three full meals a day, a bed, and TV entertainment.
Restitution hits the offender where it hurts, in their pocket imposing financial responsibility, to be repaid through sheer hard work. The idea that a burglar should return the stolen goods, pay for any damages to the victims house is acceptable and suitable form of punishment in my mind. Restitution restores a sense of individual responsibility, making the offender less likely to commit crimes. The certainty of restitution, by requiring monetary payment, takes the profit out of crime (Carson).
Most people have the common view that the criminal justice system’s increasing arrests and imprisonment is an effective strategy for reducing crime. If the judicial system makes greater distinction among violent and nonviolent crimes, the prisons will have the vacancies to incarcerate the Jeffery Dahmers of the world in prison for life. By providing alternatives to imprisonment for nonviolent offenders will reduce the burden of taxpayer’s dollars for added funding for construction of new prisons. I know as a College Student I would like to see increased State funding for education system rather than the millions allocated to the prison system of Pennsylvania.
Prisons are not places where nonviolent offenders can serve time and then be released a better person, more fit for society. The prison environment is wrong, and as a result a nonviolent offender will leave unimproved. It is my belief that the alternatives of community control programs, rehabilitation programs, and restitution programs are the answers to the sentencing of nonviolent offenders.