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In my class of Sociology of Criminal Justice, we are learning what happened socially in the United States to cause the criminal justice policy to change so dramatically into a punishment policy, where we deliver harsher punishment to individuals to incapacitate and deter them from committing punishment. The class also explores what the aspects are of this punishment policy and what the consequences have been for the past decades from this policy. One particular topic that has stuck with in this class is the topic of fairness and what is fair for individuals that have broken the law. Throughout this essay I will explore the topic of fairness, and other topics from my Sociology of Criminal Justice class, and other that mirror topics we have explored in our class of Human Dimensions of Organizations. Throughout the semester we have gone over what the procedures are for punishing individuals, who has the power to punish individuals, and what is that works and what should change, and what it should change into.
In this class we learned that Richard Nixon was the first presidential candidate to run his campaign using fear of crime as justification for a major shift in criminal justice policy (Kelly, 2016). Between 1960-1968 crime rates increased by 88% due to a threat to political instability the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act (Kelly, 2016). While this major shift in policy made sense at the time, we know now that this policy is not deterring people from committing crime. These people are going into criminal justice system, coming out, and going back in. We know that 85% of inmates released from prison were rearrested for a new offense within nine years of release. 55% were reincarcerated within five years (Kelly, 2016). We know that this policy also has costs the United States trillions of dollars over the past forty years (Kelly, 2016). We have learned that there are many factors why this policy doesn’t deter people from committing crime and this is where we can discuss the fairness of the American Criminal Justice System.
How it works
In the Human Dimensions course, we learned that fairness is important to people. People want to feel that have gotten what they deserve, that they have not been cheated out of something and that the process was the correct one. The American Criminal Justice prides itself in being fair as far as delivering justice who those who deserve it and as well as protecting their procedural rights with due process protections. The Criminal Justice system instead treats people as if they all had the same opportunities, and all the same struggles and we know that is not how this is. We know that people are born into different communities, with different struggles and circumstances.
Statistics confirm that the prevalence rates of substance abuse among those in the justice system are six to eight times the prevalence in the general population (Kelly, 2016). The vast majority, around 80%, of criminal offenders in the justice system abuse drugs and/or alcohol (Kelly, 2016). We know that substance abuse impacts the brain and brain functioning, and chronic use of substances not only reinforces the reward system but changes the function structure of the brain that causes impairments of cognitive abilities like: working memory, planning, and behavior inhibition controls (Kelly, 2016).
Mental illness is another struggle that is also prevalent in the United States criminal justice. Statistics say that 25% of the United States population has a diagnosable mental disorder, 6% of the US population suffers from a serious mental illness, which includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression (Kelly, 2016). In state prisons, 73% of women and 55% of men have a least one mental health problem (Kelly, 2016). Research shows that mental illness both pre-dates incarceration and is a result of incarceration. People can also aggravate mild symptoms when they are incarcerated.
There are also many things that people experience that can drive them to commit crime like poverty, trauma, intellectual deficits, education opportunities, homelessness, and many others (Kelly, 2016). While this is not an excuse for the crimes people commit, but logically we should not treat one person like the next person. The purpose of the system is to keep from people from coming back and so far, it has failed. People who have reoffended are likely to reoffend again once they have been in the system. The reasoning behind the tough on crime policy that Nixon successfully ran with on his campaign was that harsh punishment was fair to give people who are offending. This Sociology of Criminal Justice class argues that harsh punishment is not fair, instead we should take into account circumstances, like mental illness and substance abuse, that would put people in positions in which they would commit crimes and treat them, so they don’t reoffend and cycle back into the system (Kelly, 2016). Distributive justice in this case is not being delivered; the outcome delivered should be need based.
Throughout the semester I have learned that the procedures that are supposed to be protecting people from being punished to harshly or being wrongly convicted are often not being implemented. Years ago, the American Justice System has moved from indeterminate sentencing to determinate sentencing (Nicole Hendrix, 2013). During indeterminate sentencing there was more latitude in what the sentencing someone was given. Now, the determinate sentencing does not allow for judges to a large scope in the sentencing, rather there is set sentence for certain crime, or for someone who has offended before (Nicole Hendrix, 2013). The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were also implemented which limit the power of the judges and sets a certain number of months for a crime (Nicole Hendrix, 2013). This takes the power away from the judge and transfers it over to the prosecutor. The Federal Sentencing eliminates sentence disparity, promotes uniformity across courtrooms, and eliminated parole (Kelly, 2016). The federal sentencing guidelines also eliminated the possibility of taking into account factors that could possibly lower the sentence like age, race, mental, health, intellectual capability, and substance abuse. The prosecutor also negotiates plea deals with defense counsel and the defendant where they can lie and threaten the defendant with harsher punishment if they refuse (Kelly, 2016). These deals are carried out behind doors, on the phone, and in the prosecutor’s office; mostly unsupervised (Kelly, 2016).
Once again, the fairness of the American Criminal Justice System can be questioned. How are defendants supposed to be confident when they know that the system is designed against them? The procedural element of the Criminal Justice does not arrive at a just outcome. Even after people are out of prison the procedure is set up against them. Convicts have a harder time getting jobs, housing, and overall just have instability in their lives (Kelly, 2016). They complete their sentence and continue being punished and end up back in the criminal justice once again, because nothing has changed, their situation stays the same. If they had a substance abuse problem or a mental illness, they will have a mental illness after they come out of prison because nothing was done to treat them (Kelly, 2016).
During the course of this class we also discussed what our professor thought would be a good change in the Criminal Justice System that could alleviate the issues that have cause the same people to cycle in an out without actually remedying the problem. The prison system has now basically become a place where people with mental issues, and substance abusers go. In a sense it has become a treatment facility, even though it is not equipped to run as one, and a treatment facility that does not remedy its patients. When discussing what can be done to alleviate the issues that the criminal justice system has, it reminded me of the types of conflicts that we discussed during our Human Dimensions of Organization course. I believe that conflicts of interest and cognitive conflicts both apply here.
Disputing the truth of something is what we call cognitive conflicts. Dr. William Kelly believes that there should be a panel of experts that could assess the defendant that has committed and offense, so that we can determine what are mitigating circumstances that need to account for when sentencing this person for the crime they committed (Kelly, 2016). I also realized throughout the semester that how the criminal justice system functions now and how it should function is a conflict of interest. The system right now is designed to punish and to keep punishing those have offended but instead they should focus on reducing recidivism. While implementing these policies might be more work than many people would like to do, I think we can all agree that arriving at a fair outcome that helps everyone is fair.
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