Exploring the Reasoning that the United States Holds the Highest Prison Rate

Prison 2
Prison 2 (Photo credit: planetschwa)
Since 1980, there has been a huge growth in the incarcerated population in the United
States according to Seiter (2008).  There are several legal issues, which have directly contributed if not caused entirely the explosion of people doing time in correctional facilities in this country.  Besides the mindset that confinement is the most effective means of dealing with crime, it seems that the decision in Rhodes v. Chapman by the United States Supreme Court in 1981 was the beginning of this problem.  The decision, which stated it was not unconstitutional to house prisoners in housing that is overcrowded, gave the green light to this issue.  Other reasons include but are not limited to the increased use of confinement as penal policy, increasing sentence lengths, truth in sentencing, new penology, the war on drugs, and the sentencing reform act of 1984. 
Rhodes v. Chapman
Justia  (n.d.), reports that in 1981 inmates from an Ohio maximum security correctional institution filed a class action lawsuit which claimed that housing two men in a cell was against their eighth amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment.  The court held that because the inmates are out of their cells most of the day that this did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.  This ruling allowed administrations of prisons to double cell inmates which is a good thing because over the next twenty five years the population grew in the correctional system by at least 500 percent as noted by Seitel (2008).  This is attributed to several factors that have changed penal policy from the medical model that focused on rehabilitation and reducing recidivism to the model of confinement that we use today.

Increased Use of Confinement as Policy
In the United States, the American people have changed how they view crime.  Since 1980 we are more afraid of crime, the media reports violent crime almost daily.  We have also become less tolerant of the criminal element in society, and would just as soon lock them up and keep them confined notes Seitel (2008).  Some of this is because the public does not generally follow the statistics that show that our crime rates are dropping, and with the media showing the worst of the violent crime daily we tend to believe the worst.  When it is time to tell our policy makers what we want, because of this influence and our lack of looking for the facts on our own, we tell them that we want them confined and for longer periods of time (Seitel, 2008).
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (n.d.) reports that the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was used to toughen the sentencing guidelines for criminals.  This legislation was used to establish determinate sentencing, abolish parole at the federal level and reduced the amounts of good time that was given for following the rules in prison.  In addition to these guidelines, there were addendums in 1986, 1988, and 1990 as illegal immigration and illicit drug use and sale increased conviction rates in the court system (Federal Bureau of Prisons, n.d.).  This type of legislation also established the truth in sentencing guidelines.
Truth in sentencing guidelines maintains that an inmate in prison for a violent crime must serve out 85% of the time given at sentencing holds Chen (2000).  Three strike laws maintain that habitual offenders receive longer sentences for their crimes.  If the offender’s crime was violent, the standard sentence becomes 25 to life on the third strike.  What this has managed to cause according to Chen (2000) is more older offenders in prisons past the age of 50, more lifers, and an increase in other types of offenders in intermediate sanction punishments, due to the overcrowding that these laws have caused. 
In addition to the stance on tougher sentencing, reduction of good time, and truth in sentencing and three strike legislation, at the same time in the early 1980’s Ronald Reagan’s Presidency was the time that we as a nation declared a “war on drugs” campaign (Seitel, 2008). The idea is that society’s stance on illicit drugs holds that the problems caused by the use, production, and sale of these substances are not good for our society, communities or families.  They bring unnecessary crime along with these factions of the narcotics industry.  Seitel (2008) also maintains that according to the Department of Justice, research correlates a compelling relationship between crime and substance use.  As drug crimes became more pronounced more federal statutes and mandatory sentencing guidelines were set regarding them.  When the mandatory statute for federal narcotics crimes became five or ten year mandatory sentences, the prison population grew to the increased sentencing time. 
Since the 1980’s, we have watched our prison population in the United States quadruple in size.  This has to do with the change in the penal model from the medical model to the model of increased control that we exercise on our prison population still today according to Seitel (2008).  We have become as a society increasingly intolerant and afraid of the criminal element that dwell among us, and the current policy is to keep them more confined for longer periods than we ever have.  The justice system accomplishes this by utilizing legislation such as the sentencing act of 1984, three strikes law, mandatory sentencing guidelines, and truth in sentencing guidelines.  

Chen, E.  (2001).  Impact of Three Strikes and Truth in Sentencing on the Volume and Composition of Correctional Populations. Retrieved From: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/187109.pdf
Justia, (n.d.).  Rhodes v. Chapman-452 U.S. 337 (1981).  Retrieved From: http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/452/337/
Seiter, R.P., (2008).  Corrections: An Introduction.  Second Edition.  Prentice Hall United States

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