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Prisons: Problems and Prospects - The Prospects For Ameliorating Prison Problems

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There are a number of reasons why the resolution (or nonresolution) of prison problems is hard to predict. The most important reason is that we cannot know whether prisons will become more or less crowded over time. In the past, the task of predicting prison populations appeared easy. The assumption was that as crime increases, more offenders would get arrested. As more offenders were arrested, more of them would be convicted and imprisoned. The extent of prison congestion could therefore be extrapolated from increases in the crime rate. The competing assumption was equally easy to advance. It was that as imprisonment rates go up, the definition of crime would get less stringent, and if prison cells were emptied, offense definitions would be relaxed. One would therefore predict that imprisonment rates would remain constant over time.

Prison populations in fact had been steady over a period of several decades. Then crime rates and prison populations escalated substantially. The standard prediction (crime drives prisons) therefore looked plausible, until crime rates began to decrease while prison populations continued to increase. One could, of course, then assume that crime rates had decreased because more offenders had been incapacitated, but the relationship (increasing imprisonment, decreasing crime) had not been in evidence on other historical occasions.

When prisons are very crowded some observers conclude that there are too many people in prisons, and others infer that the number of prisons is inadequate. The latter argument, however, becomes difficult to apply in practice because the cost of prisons begins to compete with the price of schooling and other valued services.

We now know that sentencing policies do matter. But the question then becomes, What is it that drives sentencing policies? It has been fashionable to blame public opinion (according to polls, the public wants offenders imprisoned) but retributive public sentiments have been voiced in earlier periods of time. Zimring and Hawkins note that "if negative public views caused increases in prison population, the population would be ceaselessly spiraling upward" (p. 129).

Moreover, public opinion does not endorse specific restrictive sentencing provisions. Zimring and Hawkins wrote:

The most significant element of public attitudes toward crime and criminals may operate principally at the symbolic level, so that what the public wants from participants in political debate is symbolic denunciations of criminals rather than concrete plans for action in the criminal justice system. If disapproval is the principal currency in the politics of crime and punishment, it need not have any fixed rate of exchange with factors like prison population. (p. 126)

Public opinion favors revised sentencing policies when "reform" advocates entice public opinion to support their cause. This has been the case most dramatically in gubernatorial campaigns, which have uniformly exploited the fear of crime (Davey). In 1994, the New York Times pointed out that "the governors were so united in seizing on crime that some tossed off the same applause lines." The governor of Mississippi, for example, said that "I will fight with every breath in my body to see that the criminals we take off the streets serve their time. And if that means that we have to build a bigger jail house, then hand me a shovel, stand back, and we'll get it built" (1994). Some governors advocated the return of chain gangs, which for a time made the United States a laughing stock abroad, and caused howls of outrage in the corrections profession.

Politicians have consistently undersold the fact—which has been repeatedly documented by studies of opinion in depth—that citizens approve of rehabilitation and have faith in its effectiveness (Toch). This public opinion is primarily targeted at the nonviolent offenders whose influx has been responsible for prison congestion. The diversion of such offenders from prison and the expansion of substance abuse programs and of educational offerings have thus been congruent with public opinion.

The moderate stance of the public has contributed to the proliferation of proposals for attenuating "get tough" provisions that are now on the books. But since there is also a fear among politicians of being cast as "soft on crime," it is impossible to predict how many ameliorative counterreforms will end up being enacted. And if one cannot predict the reform of sentencing reforms, one cannot extrapolate the effects of legislation on the prison population, and on programming in prisons.

The sentence-expanding trend may not have run its course, and "get tough" provisions can conflict with rehabilitative goals. In New York, for example, parole officers are now charged with case-managing substance abusers, while legislation is simultaneously pending to abolish parole for felons. The outcome of political battles that are still in progress will determine the probable future of prison systems.

Society has not resolved the question of the proper use of the criminal justice system, including prisons, in dealing with drug offenders. While decriminalization is not a likely option in the United States, a de-escalation of the war on drugs could occur, with greater emphasis on prevention programs. General Barry McCaffrey, who directed President Clinton's drug control policy, made this very point in a speech about sentencing policies—policies that he said "have caused thousands of low-level and first-time offenders to be incarcerated at high cost for long sentences that are disproportionate to their crimes." The general concluded:

It is clear that we cannot arrest our way out of the problem of chronic drug abuse and drug-driven crime. We cannot continue to apply policies and programs that do not deal with the root causes of substance abuse and attendant crime. What is needed is smart drug policy linked to a flexible and rational criminal justice system. What matters is whether our system works to end the cycle of drug abuse and crime. (Wren, 29 June 1999)

General McCaffrey's conclusion could head a roster of viable prospects for the amelioration of prison problems, which might include the following propositions:

  1. Imprisonment could be reserved for drug offenders who require treatment in structured, institutional environments. Other substance abusers could be assigned to therapeutic settings in the community, under criminal justice auspices.
  2. Special programming strategies could be developed for inmates who are long-term residents in the prison. Such strategies could involve sentence planning, sequences of progressive experiences or career steps, discriminable stages or phases of prison adjustment, and periodic reevaluations.
  3. Provision could be made for the early release of long-term prisoners who no longer pose a danger to the community. Such provisions have to include combinations of risk assessment and inventories of coping capabilities, with bridging experiences to the challenges of community life preceding release.
  4. Special settings in prison could be multiplied for prisoners with special needs. Such settings would have to include age-graded institutions and units for those prisoners who have limited coping competence. New settings would have to be established for inmates who are disruptive and emotionally disturbed and do not belong in conventional segregation settings.
  5. It is essential for all prisoners to be meaningfully occupied. Meaningfulness of activities can be enhanced by multiplying opportunities for offenders to contribute to the community at large, such as by rendering services to the disabled and disadvantaged.

Finally, correctional facilities would have to live up to their name: prisons can be managed to be effective without being inhumane or gratuitously punitive. It has been an elementary assumption in corrections that offenders are sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment. Imprisonment must of necessity be uncomfortable, but this does not mean that it needs to be stultifying or destructive. The challenge for prisons is to find ways to ensure that inmates use the time they must spend in confinement to improve their chances of becoming law-abiding, well adjusted, and contributing members of society after serving their sentences.

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