Corrections over Punishment – the Lethality and Severity of our System

Updated: Sep 16, 2018

The terms “prison,” “penitentiary,” and “correctional facility” all incite several connotations of bars, violence and punishment, all stemming from our experiences with popular media and misrepresentation of the aim of criminal justice in our Western culture. However, one of those three terms should stand out with its own set of relatively positive connotations – and the fact that it does not truly illustrates a deep-rooted, systemic issue at the heart of America’s criminal justice system -- “Correctional facility.” The term is used to demonstrate the implied mission of criminal justice: to correct and rehabilitate individuals serving a sentence so that they may be more successfully transitioned back into their communities, successfully find employment, housing, and a supportive community to fall back on. This remains the intent of the system – and this is what the American people want to believe about the system. Yet, we still conjure up images of bars, violence, and punishment and convicted felons face a suicide rate eighteen times that of the general population. The system has failed. How did we get here?

A Little History:

The American tradition has always prided itself on its judicial system – and for good reason. During the era of the Founding, an independent judiciary devoid of arbitration and cruel and unusual punishment was at the foreground of constitutional debate. Upon its adoption, the American judiciary was truly unique among its contemporaries. The new system allowed for a jury trial of peers, protections against arbitration, double jeopardy, and established due process. And for some time, this seemingly perfect judiciary continued. However, as the country grew, so did its bureaucracy. As the twentieth century marched forward, indeterminate sentencing, a system with an emphasis on rehabilitation over punishment, grew in popularity, granting the majority of the sentencing power to judges and parole officers, as they were seen as “experts,” siphoning off power from both the public and the government.” The federal government took a position of “non-reviewability,” effectively killing the appeals process. Further, sentencing was not a part of law school curriculum, generating a lack of review or comprehensive knowledge. Judges would not set guidelines or procedures for sentencing, generating decades of disparity. This situation remained relatively unchanged until 1984 with the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act, heralding in the shift penal focus from rehabilitation to punishment. This new system aimed at increasing fairness in all cases with regards to sentencing – something indeterminate sentencing lacked. At first the new proposals and guidelines seemed promising: The resurrection of a strong appellate court, standards for setting parole, the establishment of commissions which required judges to provide reason for their sentencing, and the implementation of presumptive sentencing guidelines which prevented sentencing disparities. The seventies and eighties dredged on. It is around this time in which “crime-tough" became a popular platform for gung-ho politicians to rally behind; candidates who promised to put more criminals behind bars were elected en mass, bringing with them minimum sentencing laws and an emphasis on “clarity and severity.” Anyone convicted of a crime in clearly-defined categories were subject to the minimum sentencing within those categories, generating an illusion of fairness. These minimum sentences became tougher and tougher, and convicted felons lost their right to vote, became ineligible of loans, government assistance, and public housing. For these law makers in the mid-to-late 1990’s, being tough on crime meant treating criminals severely. This is where we remain to this day.

By the Numbers:

Incarceration statistics in the United States

In 2016:

The US has the highest incarceration rate per capita of any country, at 670 per 100,000. The closest country to that rate is Rwanda at 434.

From 1986-1996 the number of incarcerated individuals spiked from 522,084 to 1,137,722. The number continued to increase until 2009 when it decreased for the first time since 1972

In 2005: Recidivism rates among released prisoners within five years is a staggering 76.6%

African Americans are 5.1 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers

More than 10% of those coming in and out of prisons and jails are homeless in the months preceding and following their incarceration

The suicide rate among released prisoners remains disproportionate to the rest of the adult population, being eighteen times greater

So What:

Today, we remain a society hellbent on the punishment of those we deem deserve it. Having distanced ourselves from the goal of rehabilitation and instead aligning ourselves behind a doctrine of intentionally cruel punishment, requiring the accused to pay dearly, and often permanently, for an action of the past. We have become a society of revenge and have hardened our hearts to forgiveness, hiding behind a guise of order or religion. We cannot be the “Land of the Free,” if we continue to dehumanize American citizens who happen to be prisoners, institutionally persecuting them until the day they die. The system has failed. How do we get away from here?

Luke Herman

"Born July 18, 1997. I graduated from Waterford Union High School in 2016 to pursue a passion for history and secondary education with hopes of becoming high school teacher. Currently a junior at Calvin College, I am a member of the Men’s Swim Team and have plans to apply for both history graduate programs and law schools. "