By C. Jeff Oakes
The Issue: The Criminal Justice System operates within the parameters of law, but at times, the law proves insufficient for the operation of justice and the handling of crime and criminals. Nowhere is this better seen than in the corrections departments across the nation.
The state of corrections in America has been one of constant change since the founding of the first penitentiary Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1829 until present day. Indeed, even the term, “penitentiary” reminds us of just how radical some of these changes have been. The term is derived from the expression penitence and carries religious significance as related to one who has repented of their sins. Of course, today we use the term “corrections,” which when we think about it, really carries the same quasi-religious connotations.
However, even the term “corrections” does not properly apply to prisons today, for seldom are those who return from such environments ever “corrected” at least in the sense that society would like for them to be. Instead, most who exist prisons today leave with a far better criminal education than when they entered. In most regions, the rates of recidivism are high. Of course, in another sense one could say that the criminals who enter prisons ARE corrected–they are taught to be better criminals and this is a form of corrections, though not the one society prefers…or so we are led to believe.
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The unfortunate reality is that no state, nor the Federal government has to date created a Corrections, or penitentiary system that conforms to known scientific fact. In addition, there are no such facilities that even comport to the very stated goals of sentencing completely and for this reason, many in society are beginning to see that this system has developed serious flaws.
Of course, the politicians who pass laws related to these facilities would like the public to believe that these are functioning as they should. The Wardens of these facilities often do their best with what they are provided, which is generally not enough. The guards are underpaid and often resort to providing illegal goods to the prisoners–which explains the numerous studies pointing to the growth of drugs within the prison walls. In some places, prisoners have filed lawsuits based on conditions and won their cases–one of note is California, which in 2010 faced the possibility of having the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) assume control if the state did not get the overcrowding problem under control.
From society, some are even referring to the latest trend of privatizing prisons as an industrial complex on a par with the Soviet Gulags, often citing The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn as proof of their allegations. Indeed, given the recent naming of the Florida Atlantic University stadium GEO Group Stadium, after the company which owns and operates 101 correctional facilities in the region, many in the public are siding with this interpretation. One commentator suggesting naming the stadium, Owlcatraz, merging the school mascot with the infamous, now shunted prison in San Francisco Bay.
Of course, for the Criminologist and academic, the issues seem obvious and solutions clear. For many judges, the issues are just as clear, though for different reasons.
The goals of sentencing in Criminal Justice are (Schmalleger, 2009)…
Of course, judges see the situation differently from academics. Judges face the inability to judge because their hands are often bound to what those who make the laws dictate. Those who pass the laws, unfortunately, are seldom qualified themselves for many, especially elected Representatives, do not even possess more than a High School diploma. And those who do hold even law degrees, often only do what is politically expedient, rather than what either makes sense or what is empirically proven. Hence, even if a judge would like to sentence according to the stated goals of the criminal justice system, he or she often cannot because the law dictates otherwise.
For the criminologist, the entire system is in sore need of an overhaul. For instance, there can be little doubt that the current system discriminates, but proving it is difficult and even when proof is presented, law-makers are reticent to correct the matter because of their constituency or the politicians perceived fear of reprisal–the issue simply comes down to one of job security. In addition, these same officials are paid large sums of money in the way of campaign contributions by the very prison corporations that profit from tougher laws. Indeed, based on information provided by influenceexplorer.com, just the Corrections Corporation of America alone provided more than $300,000 in campaign contributions to politicians between 2011-2012, mostly state, and another $1,560,000 in Lobbying efforts.
So there is monetary incentive to avoid rehabilitation and restoration. This is a large reason why the modern “corrections” system fails to correct. In fact, watch this video from the program The Young Turks for just one example from Ohio as it pertains to CCA.
As for deterrence, there is ample evidence today related to the deterrent effect of prison and the results from study after study are not encouraging. For instance, in a Centenial Symposium, criminologist Raymond Paternoster examined the evidence by comparing the theories proposed by Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria to the empirical understanding we have today. The conclusion was simple:
“There is greater confidence that non-legal factors are more effective in securing compliance than legal threats. It is argued that the empirical evidence does support the belief that criminal offenders are rational actors, in that they are responsive to the incentives and disincentives associated with their actions, but that the criminal justice system, because of its delayed imposition of punishment, is not well constructed to exploit this rationality.”
Thus, the notion of deterrence fails when considering sentencing goals, yet this is often the reason cited by grandstanding politicians when calling for severe punishments in certain circumstances. The notion of “making an example” of someone seems to be common sense, when in reality, the facts state otherwise. And all too often, the public buys into this notion.
Thus, the only two sentencing goals remaining which make any sense in today’s climate are retribution and incapacitation. Yet, politicians and law-makers cannot seem to even make these goals work for often those who should be kept in prison are released early and retribution far too often falls on innocent heads, further weakening this position.
As many are beginning to believe, there really are only two true sentencing goals in the modern criminal justice and corrections field–money and power.
This section of pages presents information related to the facts of modern corrections, not the fantasy arguments of politicians paid to keep the wheels of justice churning out dollars. The goal of this section of the site is to increase awareness of how this system can be rebuilt should good sense and wise judgement ever invade the minds of the law-makers. Perhaps, if enough people begin to understand the folly of following incompetent, ambitious, greedy politicians and begin to realize that we today have the potential to structure a criminal justice system that effectively works to reduce crime, positive changes can be made.
Paternoster, R. (2010). How much do we really know about criminal deterrence?. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 1(3). 765-