Criminal law is an instrument of last hope, designed to prohibit the most dangerous, socially intolerable acts. It involves the use of the most severe punishments affecting the most important constitutional rights of an individual, including his or her status. The tendency of excessive criminalization of various types of behavior and toughening penalties is characteristic not only of the USA but also of other countries.
It reflects the deeply rooted views in the public mind that criminal justice tools can effectively solve the emerging social and economic problems. Usually, the increase in the level of mass incarceration is explained by the need to combat crime. However, empirical evidence does not confirm the validity of such an approach. In this research, the analysis of the phenomenon of mass incarceration and its impact on American society as well as of sentencing reform will be done.
Characteristics of Mass Incarceration in the US
In its development, US criminal law has gone through several stages. By now, the absolute chaos that prevailed in the criminal law sphere in the United States has been eliminated. However, there are still persistent differences in the structure and regulation of various issues in new criminal codes. Nevertheless, the main achievement of the criminal law reform movement is that now there is a more or less uniform interpretation of the central criminal law institutions and categories.
The campaign against excessive criminalization and incarceration has a rich history. It involves left and right, Democrats and Republicans, who speak in a single coalition. Today, this movement has attracted full attention and is becoming widespread.
The fight against excessive criminalization in the United States began in the second half of the 20th century, shortly after the adoption of the Model Penal Code. However, a plethora of scholars and officials conclude that society considers mass imprisonment as a necessity. The conviction that it is able to control any behavior is not the absolute truth.
In global, the concept of retribution is quite attractive to society, which largely determines the activities of politicians. Federal law as a whole can serve as an example of excessive criminalization of acts. In the United States at the national level, there are more than 4,000 laws and about 300,000 by-laws that provide for the possibility of criminal penalties. A lot of federal laws duplicate state laws or each other.
There is a great number of reliable scholar investigations on the topic. Understanding the links between mass imprisonment, the reintegration of former prisoners, and the cohesion of territorial communities requires realizing of the four critical parameters of the “prison boom” (Morenoff & Harding, 2014).
First, prisoners are predominantly representatives of poorly educated segments of the population, as well as ethnic minorities, in particular, young black men. Thus, the racial and ethnic composition of people who are in prison does not match the racial and ethnic makeup of the US population.
Second, to a much greater extent than any other community, the phenomenon of mass incarceration affects the poor representatives of urban centers. Staying in jail for residents of deprived urban areas is becoming commonplace. In such communities, the proportion of those who are faced with the criminal justice system is not much less than the number integrated into the labor market and the educational system of the country. Upon returning home, many former prisoners find themselves among other former prisoners, which negatively affects the nature of competition for scarce resources.
Third, a substantial increase in the number of prisoners in US prisons increases racial and socioeconomic inequalities in the country. The situation is worsening precisely for those groups of people who were previously in the least privileged position. Finally, fourth, the “prison boom” was accompanied by an even more significant increase in the number of community corrections; the number of parolees has also increased substantially.
Positive and Negative Effects of the US Mass Incarceration
The positive effect of incapacitating criminals is achieved through the consistent use of isolation mechanisms, intimidation (by tightening the punishment for repeated violations), and social rehabilitation. The significant beneficial consequences of the impact of mass imprisonment on society might be the protection of social groups from dangerous members by isolating the latter (Morenoff & Harding, 2014). In addition, mass incarceration contributes to the strengthening of informal social control.
If those who threaten its security are removed from the group, trust increases between the remaining individuals, and they become more united and are more willing to engage in joint work aimed at preventing crime. Finally, the high rates in terms of the number of prisoners themselves can act as a deterrent: understanding the inevitability of punishment prevents many from committing illegal actions.
The mark of unreliability limits the possibilities of legal employment of people who have just left prison, whose response to society’s rejection is often the complete internalization of the negative identity imposed on them. Also, while serving his or her sentence in correctional institutions, the individual goes through the so-called criminal school, learns the laws and norms of the criminal world (Morenoff & Harding, 2014). At the same time, imprisonment weakens the relationship between the convict and his family, which, in combination with all of the above circumstances, hinders the successful reintegration of former prisoners.
Negative aspects of mass incarceration might also be demonstrated as follows. Economic deprivation and systematic practice of isolating entire population groups indirectly affect the crime rate, weakening informal social control in territorial communities. The constant flow of people through the establishment of the penitentiary system leads to the breakdown of almost all social networks of the community. It becomes more heterogeneous; the foundations of political unity are eroded, the ability to self-regulation and effective interaction with the authorities disappears.
It is accepted that the primary goal of the legal order is not to systematically demonstrate the superiority of the system of public norms over society. On the contrary, the law is to guarantee the coordinated realization of the rights and freedoms of all American citizens. Thus, punishment cannot be the preferred method of ensuring the right. It must be distinguished from other means of inducing compliance with legal norms.
The deterrent threat of punishment is justified by the need to maintain a condition of legal justice (Stewart, 2016). However, excessive sentence contradicts this condition; so mass incarceration is both necessary and limited by the idea of equal freedoms for all.
The Essence of Sentencing Reform
The issue of mass incarceration lies beyond any political contradictions, struggles, and differences. Citizens of the United States pay more than any other nation for financing the jails system. By 2015, about 2 million people were held in US prisons (Grassley, 2015). Thus, for American officials, it was necessary to consider the problem all together abandoning ideological misdirection and come up with a relevant legal act on a bipartisan basis.
On October 1, 2015, Chuck Grassley, a Republican senator, introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA), aiming to improve the US criminal justice system (Grassley, 2015). Cohen (2019) says that despite the support from both parties, Congress could not pass the Act because of political splits due to the upcoming presidential election of 2016; it was adopted later, with Trump’s support.
The bill has become one of the few bipartisan initiatives presented to Congress in recent years; the reform was advocated by a coalition of liberal and conservative groups. Proponents of changes say the current sentencing system is unfair and violates the rights of various minorities.
SRCA is the foundation of the reform of criminal justice in the United States; its crucial provisions today are as follows. First, it strictly abolishes the mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment. Second, it gives judges more freedom to deal with minor crimes. Third, it cancels automatically assigned life sentences for the third sentence (so-called three-strike laws) imposed for committing a violent crime or drug trafficking.
The bill also provides for programs designed to protect people who have been convicted for the first time and have committed non-violent crimes from mandatory harsh minimum sentences. Furthermore, the reform aims to result in the broader application of parole for good behavior, the introduction of various reintegration programs, and the improvement of conditions for women and minors. The bill is to make American cities safe and give former prisoners a chance for a new life after serving a prison term.
However, there are still a plethora of issues unsolved within the scope of mass incarceration. Sawyer and Wagner (2019) claim, “the American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails (p. 1).
About 76% of people being in prisons are not convicted for any crime; “every year, over 600,000 people enter prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year” (Sawyer & Wagner, 2019, p. 3). What is more, drug offenses remain a defining feature of the US justice system, despite the end of the War on Drugs and substantial policy changes.
It should also be mentioned that poverty has a central role in mass imprisonment. Sawyer and Wagner (2019) state that the American “criminal justice system punishes poverty beginning with the high price of money bail: The median felony bail bond amount ($10,000)” (p. 17). Finally, people of color are overrepresented in American prisons, which is also a big issue to consider.
Keeping in mind that 2.3 million people being in jails, although the reform has taken place, it might be clear that something should be changed. Torny (2019) suggests nine lessons to be learned from fifty years of the US sentencing reform that might be considered as possible directions of the criminal justice system.
The most crucial ones might be applying sentencing guidelines and repealing mandatory sentences. The first is the most effective mean “to improve consistency, reduce disparity, and control corrections spending;” mandatory sentences “produce countless injustices, encourage cynical circumventions, and seldom achieve demonstrable reductions in crime” (Tonry, 2019, p. 3). SRCA contains many essential provisions to solve the problems related to mass incarceration, but there is still a long way to overcome them fully.
It might be assumed that mass imprisonment in the United States has a significant impact on American society. This phenomenon is contradictive and has both positive and negative aspects resulting in various opinions on the related issue. However, the scope and nature of mass imprisonment is a problem to concern for all officials of the US. It results in adopting SRCA and implementing a new policy of the criminal justice system that, nevertheless, still has a lot of points to improve.
Cohen, D. M. (2019). Justice, not jailbreak: The context and consequence of the First Step Act. Victims & Offenders, 14(8), 1084–1098.
Grassley, S. C. (2015). Introduction of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 [Video file]. Web.
Morenoff, J. D., & Harding, D. J. (2014). Incarceration, prisoner reentry, and communities. Annual Review of Sociology, 40(1), 411–429.
Sawyer, W., & Wagner, P. (2019). Mass incarceration: The whole pie 2019. Web.
Stewart, H. (2016). The wrong of mass punishment. Criminal law and philosophy, 12. Web.
Tonry, M. (2019). Fifty years of American sentencing reform: Nine lessons. Crime and Justice, 48(1), 1–34.