A Primer on Criminal Justice

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A Primer on Criminal Justice

Post  Yoke on Wed May 13, 2009 11:56 am

At least 9.25 million people are in prisons and jails around the world, with incarcerated Americans making up a disproportionate number of prisoners (the U.S. takes up less than 5% of the world's population, yet more than 2.5 million people -- more than one-quarter of the world's prison population -- are incarcerated in its jails and prisons). In addition, one in 100 Americans is in prison or jail.

Courts and Prisons
The bulk of incarcerated people in the United States have been convicted of non-violent crimes, often relating to drug possession. However, the most controversial form of punishment is the death penalty, which has been abolished in most countries in Europe and Latin America and is rarely practiced in others. The United States is one of only eight countries worldwide – the list includes China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, Vietnam and Jordan -- that have executed more than ten people a year in recent years. Largely due to the emergence of DNA evidence, which has been used to overturn wrongful convictions, the death penalty has become more controversial in the United States over the past decade. However, three-quarters of Americans still say they support capital punishment for convicted murderers.

Inequality and Bureaucracy
While prisons were historically aimed at rehabilitation, in many countries they continue to be treated as mere punishment, and sprawling legal systems disproportionately affect the poor and minorities. In the United States and other nations, prisons and the industries that serve them have become bureaucratic and economic machines, warehousing the members of society's fringes and perpetuating their own existence through strict sentencing and criminal laws. In addition to failures of rehabilitation and wrongful convictions, the U.S. prison industry is inefficient; it costs the U.S. federal government and individual state governments a staggering $55 billion a year, and continues to grow.

Strict Sentencing and the War on Drugs
A large part of this growth is due to strict sentencing laws and increased enforcement of drug crimes. Mandatory minimum sentencing requires judges to sentence people based on a set of predetermined rules rather than any mitigating factors in a case. With such a huge population behind bars - many of them inner-city black men - the effect on families and communities is devastating, creating a cycle of crime and poverty. In the United States, over 10% of black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are currently behind bars.

Wrongful Convictions and Reform
Reform movements have responded to the exponential growth in the prison system by recommending treatment and rehabilitation for many crimes rather than long prison sentences. The increased use of forensic DNA testing to identify perpetrators of crimes in recent years has also overturned hundreds of wrongful convictions, leading to the exoneration of innocent prisoners. These cases have highlighted the unreliability of some traditional forms of evidence such as eyewitness identification and confessions, and with them the many wrongful sentences inflicted on innocent people. To address these and other flaws in the penal system, reforms of law enforcement procedures have been suggested.

Despite its status as a nation among nations, the United States continues to have archaic prison policies rivaled, ironically, only countries notorious for myriad human rights abuses. The U.S. desperately needs to reform its approach to incarceration and rehabilitation.


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