Having worked in the legal system for most of my life, I have had opportunity to see firsthand how our justice system works both at the processing level, and after conviction. When compared to the judicial system in other countries, ours leaves much to be desired. There are many issues that plague our system, despite the amount of money that is spent yearly on it. The following are some of the more prevalent ones that can be easily remedied.
Presently, too many people are convicted or negotiate pleas which leaves them with a criminal record for crimes that are minor and/or non-violent. Once there is conviction, sealing or expunging the record becomes impossible so they are stuck with this record forever. This becomes a problem because it hinders the ability of these people to find adequate employment, or obtain financial aid if they want to improve their life and go back to school. It also limits where they can live, since background checks are commonplace to move into communities.
When you are arrested and charged, your attorney will more often than not, encourage you to take a plea because the outcome is certain, and you don’t have any guarantees with a jury. It may be recommended in some instances when you don’t have enough money to pay for a trial, which can be costly. Other times the evidence against you is so great that there is no reasonable doubt, and a conviction would be certain.
When being sentenced you are prone to receive a longer sentence if you have prior convictions. In some states you can be sentenced to life after 3 felony convictions. Presently there are about 28 states that have the 3 strikes law or habitual offender laws. Some states implement these laws to make sure that repeat offenders are off the streets. However, this method can be extreme, especially for crimes that are not serious and/or non-violent.
Once incarcerated you will be sent to a prison, either state or federal, depending on your crime. In our present prison system there are a growing number of private facilities. There are about 1.5 million prisoners in the United States. Private facilities house about 6% of the current state inmate population, and about 16% of federal prisoners. This does not include the inmates held in jails. It has been noted that some of these private facilities also have occupancy requirements, which encourages more convictions.
The conditions in many of these facilities are substandard. Inmates are not given proper diets, medical care, or proper clothing in winter, and rainy months. Sometimes there is overcrowding and inmates are made to sleep on the floor until there is room. Most of these facilities are understaffed in order to increase the profit margin since they are privately owned by corporations. This creates an unsafe environment for the inmates as well as the corrections officers. Many of these facilities implement “lock downs” for long periods of time for any reason. During these “lock downs” inmates are not permitted to go outside. Sometimes “lock downs” make it easier for the guards to manage the inmates since they are understaffed.
In these facilities there are a large number of inmates with mental illness. In a National Institute of Corrections report in 2006, it was estimated that there were over 700,000 mentally ill people incarcerated in state prisons, almost 80,000 in federal facilities and about 480,000 in jails locally. That was 10 years ago, so those numbers are probably a lot higher now.
Some people are of the opinion that if a person commits a criminal act, it is an evil act against humanity, and there should be no empathy. That these people should be locked away to rot somewhere and forgotten. However, not everyone in prison is a violent offender. Being incarcerated in itself is the loss of the freedoms we all take for granted. Abuse, lack of medical care, and not providing proper nutrition are not part of that deal.
In order for our prison system to work in a more efficient manner I think changes have to be implemented at the sentencing level. Alternative programs for non-violent offenders would achieve a better result than traditional incarceration. Allowing non-violent offenders with not many convictions to seal their records after completing their sentences would also allow them become gainfully employed or obtain financial aid to go to school. Prisons should revert to being state owned, with no profit margin to watch over. Mental health assessments should be performed on each inmate, prior to being sent to any facility in order to determine the capacity of that future inmate to cohabitate with other inmates. A larger focus needs to be made, especially for the non-violent offender, and it should be focused on rehabilitating the inmate for future reintegration into society not just punishing him. This requires re-education, and assistance, not abuse, and neglect. We already spend more money than any other country to house all of these individuals, many for over a decade, why not take the time to make the system one that would decrease the rate of recidivism.