Dismantling the Justice System: The Issue of Prison Overpopulation and Non-Violent Offenders in America

By Katie McBeth, Guest writer

The United States has an epidemic. The current system of prisons in the USA has claimed more lives than any other prison system on this earth. According to the World Prison Population List, the United States alone hold 22% of the global prison population; making us the top country in a shameful metric.

When breaking down the structure of American prisons and jails, there are specific aspects that stick out. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a research group dedicated to the study of incarceration, there are a total of 2.3 million people in correctional facilities in the United States; all from state, local, federal, and specialty prisons (ie: juvenile, military, etc).

Breaking it down even further, researchers found that the majority of prisoners in local prisons were non-convicted or awaiting trial. This means 451,000 (just over 5% of total incarcerated Americans) are presumed innocent, but still imprisoned currently. Although some detention may be warranted for the more violent pretrial offenders, the majority of these inmates are poor people of color who are on trial for non-violent offenses but cannot afford to make bail and must wait behind bars for their trials; sometimes even waiting for months. In fact, non-violent offenders make up the majority of state prison inmates (post trial, found guilty) as well.

What is a non-violent crime?

Non-violent crimes are crimes that occur without the use of force or injury to another person. These crimes include drug offenses, immigration offenses, fraud and tax crimes, prostitution, gambling, and most property crimes. The severity of non-violent crimes are determined by the financial loss or damage to the victim. The majority of criticism for non-violent crimes comes from the over incarceration of victims of substance abuse or small-time marijuana users.

(Graph courtesy of researchers at the Prison Policy Initiative. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016)

The Cycle of Overcrowding

All 2.3 million prisoners in America are leading to a serious problem: prison overcrowding. Not only does this create burden on taxpayers, but studies have shown that inmates within overcapacity prisons are more likely to violate their parole after being released; 2.5 times more likely to be exact. Specifically, the study focused on the return to substance abuse among prisoners: a non-violent offense.

The study suggests that inmates in overcrowded prisons and jails are exposed to added “psychosocial stress” and receive little to no counseling or treatment for their addiction. The mix of these conditions can cause people to be more prone to impulsive behavior, aggression, and drug use; making a considerably less than ideal environment for individuals suffering from drug addiction. The researcher behind the study, Michael Ruderman, pointed out in an interview: “In severely overcrowded facilities, you no longer have the ability to protect inmates from sexual assault and physical abuse, and you’re depriving people of basic services like medical care. All these things make the most marginalized, most vulnerable people in society that much more vulnerable.”

The issue with parole violations for non-violent offenses goes a step further when considering the 1993 Federal Initiative 593, commonly known as “The Three Strikes Law.” The initiative is defined as “a mandate that criminals who are convicted of “most serious offenses” [such as felony offenses] on three occasions be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.” States that imposed this initiative were given the option to determine what qualified for a “most serious offense.” Most states included only violent offenses, but California passed Proposition 184 in 1994 with a sweeping definition of what met requirements for “Three Strikes and You’re Out.” Offenses that were included went beyond violent offenses and into non-violent drug offenses and some petty crimes.

California’s proposition was countered 18 years later in 2012 with Proposition 36. The results of the initial Proposition 184 were found to be leading to a more serious prison overcrowding problem than actually affecting crime rates in the cities. The cycle of imprisonment was creating a heavier burden on taxpayers and doing little to change the already declining crime rate.

Who is in Prison?

According to incarceration statistics, one in five African American men will spend time in prison. People of color are more often sentenced to severe penalties than white criminals. And the issue isn’t the severity of their crime, but the color of their skin.

For example, the recent Stanford rape case; where 20 year old “swimming star” Brock Turner was sentenced to only 6 months in a local jail for a violent rape committed against a women on campus. None of this was speculation, as he was caught in the act and found guilty of three different charges or rape and sexual assault.

Rape constitutes as a violent crime, yet 6 months was all this “star-athlete” received for his actions. Shaun King, writer for the New York Daily News, called out the blatant leniency towards the rapist and compared it with crimes committed by people of color. He even referenced a friend’s case: that of Brandon Garner who was given 10 years in federal prison for attempting to sell marijuana. King wrote: “Brandon was a brilliant full-time barber, a father, and a beloved friend to hundreds. I’ve known him since I was 5 years old. He’s a good guy who got caught up doing the wrong thing to make money. He’s black, though, so no judge in America was going to look at him and think sweet nothings like Judge Aaron Persky did to Brock Turner.”

The crime of selling marijuana is not even comparable with the damaging effects of rape, yet skin color and privilege afforded a rapist less than the minimum sentencing, and a one-time drug dealer a solid 10 years in the prison industrial complex.

Although skin color is often times the most common indicator of prejudicial injustice, it is not the only one. Money and poverty are also at play in the prison industrial complex. Seeing as most individuals on the poverty spectrum are people of color, it is no surprise that the two go hand in hand. Just as was the case for guilty rapist Brock Turner: money buys freedom (or a lighter sentence in this case).

Even more honestly, money buys bail and a great lawyer that can convince a panel of peers (the jury) that the defendant is not guilty. This leads to an overall higher rate of incarceration for people of color and those entrenched in poverty.

[[ For a more in-depth analysis of the serious issue of black incarceration, please read the moving and thorough investigation of Ta Nehisi-Coates in his Atlantic article: The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Summarizing his ideas would not do it justice. ]]

What is the solution?

Dismantling systemic racism and prejudicial injustice would be an ideal solution for our current prison predicament. However, that outcome is sadly far from being achievable in our lifetime (although it is very much worth the years of fighting to achieve).

The next, most obvious solution would be to halt the “war on drugs,” to pardon all prior offenses involving marijuana, and to release anyone stuck in the cycle of the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law for non-violent offenses. Since marijuana is slowly gaining legalization across the country, it would only make sense to pardon those that are in the system for these minor offenses, or to allow them to demand a resentencing hearing.

Luckily, in California, many prisoners may get a second chance come November 2016 when voters will decide on a ballot measure for early parole for nonviolent criminals. The ballot will propose early release for those that have only committed minor offenses but were stuck in the cycle of the Three Strikes Law. Inmates that qualify will then be required to participate in prison education programs and will be required to “earn good behavior credit” during parole.

This solution to the overcrowding in California is an option that many other states should look into. By arranging to fund rehabilitation and other specialized programs, prisons can see a heavy decrease in inmate population and parole violations.

As an alternative to jail time prior to judgment, pretrial services could help alleviate local jails from overcrowding. Pretrial services are procedures that analyze and collect information on the defendant to determine if they are eligible for probationary monitoring leading up to a trial and conviction. If the defendant appears to be non-threatening to the public, unlikely to commit to crime again, and unlikely to skip court dates; then they are eligible for early release pending trial. The limit for this service is simply a lack of probation officers to monitor defendants, as well as a lack of qualified counselors to make proper assessments. By placing an emphasis on this need within the criminal justice system, as well as putting emphasis on pretrial hearings for non-violent offenders, this could be a simple solution for alleviating local jails from overcrowding.
With the upcoming California elections, Americans may see an active example of a justice system attempting to dismantle its corrupt structure. It may not be the complete slash and burn that the system needs and that minority victims crave, but it holds potential for a brighter future. Hopefully soon, the United States will be proud of their standing on the global scale of incarceration; considerably lower than it is today.

AuthorProfile (1)About the author:

Katie McBeth is a Freelance writer out of Boise, ID. She is an intersectional feminist, owner of a small private zoo, and can occasionally be found at music festivals cheering on her favorite indie acts. You can follow her animal and writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth.


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