Should we abolish jail time for non-violent offenses?
- According to Merriam-Webster, there is quite a difference in the definitions of jail and prison, even though the two are often used interchangeably, “...jail can be used to describe a place for those awaiting trial or held for minor crimes, whereas prison describes a place for convicted criminals of serious crimes.”
- Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the L.A. county jail population has been reduced by 5,000 due to concerns over inmates contracting the disease.
- A 2016 Gallup poll revealed that only 45% of Americans feel that the justice system needs to “toughen up”, while 38% believe that drug-crime sentences are too tough.
- America has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world.
Prisons are overcrowded and beyond capacity, leading to unwanted and excessive costs borne by the American taxpayer. Of those incarcerated, the majority are non-violent offenders. And it is the integration of violent offenders into this population that creates added risk and reduced resources. For many non-violent offenders, prison time increases exposure to more dangerous criminals, and also increases the chances of being potentially victimized or even recruited.
Crime rates are at a historic low, but decades of mass incarceration have produced an unsustainable crisis. The system needs reform, something that could save upwards of $20 billion per year or '...enough to employ 270,000 new police officers, 360,000 probation officers, or 327,000 school teachers.'
In 2016, after three years of research, nearly 40% of America's millions of prisoners were deemed to be no threat to public safety and were thus considered unnecessarily incarcerated. Moreover, the effectiveness and fairness of alternatives to prison were significantly greater in many 'lower-level crimes.'
Criminologists assert that the threat of harsh prison sentencing does not effectively deter would-be criminals. In an ideal world, punishments instead would be proportionate, economically feasible, and of course, as effective as possible. The main objectives of incarceration being public safety and rehabilitation.
Imagine a man is arrested for felony drug possession and sentenced to a year behind bars. The local facilities can't house him, so taxpayer money funds his transfer, where his cellmate 'educates' him on more severe crimes. If instead he were placed in a half-way house with regular monitoring and surrounded by others working toward similar goals, his chances at true rehabilitation would improve, and the fiscal impact of overcrowded prisons would be reduced.
Any system of punishment needs graduated penalties. While fines, community service, and treatment work well as alternatives for smaller crimes, major crimes require a proportionately greater response, and we have yet to discover a viable substitute for incarceration.
The data on Alternative-to-Incarceration (or ATI) courts is promising, but these courts do not cover all types or degrees of non-violent offenses. In some instances, taking jail time off the table would threaten the immediate or long-term good of the community.
Certain “non-violent” crimes, such as DUIs, indicate a pattern of reckless behavior and the potential for future harm, demanding that we imprison an individual for the safety of others. In Sessions v. Dimaya (2018), the ruling substantially shortened the definition of what constitutes a violent crime. Calling the phrase “unconstitutionally vague,” the Supreme Court denied the inclusion of crimes that carry only a “substantial risk” of violence—rather than an explicit attempt or threat.
Arguments against incarceration based on its inefficacy as a deterrent are also too broad. Incarceration is an effective deterrent against white-collar crime, an area in which lenience historically has contributed to recidivism. Many members of this class fear going to jail, a repercussion that can dissuade them from committing offenses that are, by definition, rational. Without this risk, individual offenders will view their crimes in the same way that corporations do: as a cost of business.
Even those who doubt that prison sentences will deter individuals believe that these sentences still send an important message by emphasizing the impact financial crimes have on society. No one wants a system in which the rich can select from a menu of criminal activities and purchase today’s special.