Society validates incarceration through theories of deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. The United States has warped its criminal justice system to reflect such extreme versions of these principles that each has proven inefficient. These bases are weaponized to perpetuate an incredibly problematic cycle with a particularly oppressive impact on historically disenfranchised communities.
Responding to criminal activity leads to a seemingly logical understanding that punishment, e.g., imprisonment, deters people from committing crimes. However, this is fallacious reasoning. “Crimes” are often the result of socioeconomic necessity; the criminalization of those who struggle with mental illness, particularly people who struggle with substance dependency; or extreme racial targeting. These factors can not be sufficiently “deterred” by prison. Further, statistically, someone convicted of a crime is not deterred from future offenses by facing a prison sentence. Prison sentences increase the likelihood of a future offense. Considering crimes of necessity—direct attacks on people who struggle with indigency—incarceration further impoverishes people. For people who struggle with mental illness, symptoms are typically exacerbated by time spent in prison leading to further behavior criminalized by the legal system.
This failure to deter crime also fails to rehabilitate. Without addressing the overcriminalization of offenses targeted at historically disenfranchised communities, rehabilitation is impossible. High rates of recidivism are caused by a lack of societal support upon release and the long-term effects of poor living conditions within correctional facilities.
The general argument for incapacitation is concern for public safety. While a worthy goal, and reasonable to assume a person cannot commit further criminal activity to harm the public during their term of incarceration, incapacitation has little-to-no long term effect on public safety.
Another theory behind the criminal justice system in the United States is retribution via punishment. Not only does this theory fail to offer a productive result, as seen by excessive rates of recidivism and lack of deterrence, it is exceptionally costly. The United States spends nearly $300 billion every year to police and incarcerate people.
There are other viable and less-costly options to the current system. Diverting funds to public-housing, food security, and healthcare will help prevent criminal activity related to indigency. Decriminalizing the manifestations of mental illness, particularly substance abuse, and focusing solely on treatment will substantially reduce issues of overcrowding in incarceration facilities. Implementing restorative justice programs in lieu of the punitive theories of Westernized culture will greatly reduce costs of the criminal justice system as a whole.
Despite the proven failure of the United States criminal justice system, and despite available alternative options, the United States continues with the same structure. Why? The criminal justice system directly profits those in control of it.
The Prison Industrial Complex addresses the closely intertwined interests of those enforcing the criminal justice system with industries that directly profit from mass incarceration. Though the monetary cost of mass incarceration is astronomical for families and taxpayers, the cost of perpetuating this system benefits law enforcement and private industries.
Policing budgets increase in tandem with harsh-on-crime policies. When law enforcement agencies advocate for budget increases they point to statistics of criminal activity to justify the worth in policing. More criminal activity equates to more money for law enforcement. This creates an inherent conflict. Generally understood purposes of policing include public safety and combating criminal activity, but for police to perform these purposes there must first be criminal activity. Less crime means less use for police.
Even in public prisons, private companies capitalize on the excessive number of inmates. Companies find easy profit in reaping lucrative benefits from prisons’ use of commissaries to provide basic necessities, expensive phone calls, difficult to access medical services, secure cell furniture, etc. Further, and even more grotesque, many private companies violate human dignity by profiting on prison labor. People who are incarcerated are paid mere cents an hour. When it comes time for criminal justice reform lobbying, private companies are incentivized to encourage the continuance of mass incarceration, thus continuing their profits.
It is undeniable the United States needs to reexamine its criminal justice system. It is unproductive, excessively costly, and it disproportionately impacts historically disenfranchised communities. As long as private industries are allowed to profit off this system, there is not much hope for change. Before we can successfully advocate for a criminal justice system that does not result in mass incarceration and failed rehabilitation, the privatization of the criminal justice system must be addressed.