The empirical explanation postulates that the crime rate is higher in America and the incarceration rate reflects this. The second explanation is that public opinion in the United States demands the harsher sentencing laws and the incarceration rates simply reflect the demands of the American citizenry. The third factor is the journalistic issue that crime and punishment is one of the divisive issues employed in conservative politics. The fourth explores the extent that politicians can use an emotional issue such as crime to garner broad based support. The fifth explanation postulates that historical trends result in cycles of greater and lesser tolerance..
The reasoning behind why American crime rates are so high is tied to other factors besides the high incarceration rate. One of the causes articulated is the manner in which the crime rate is evaluated. The ‘crime rate’ frequently reported by the media is compiled from figures reported in the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) reported by the police and released by the FBI. Victimization statistics are compiled from surveys by the Department of Justice. Both of these systems are flawed in that they do not include any assessment of drug offenses. . A higher incarceration rate accompanied a decline in crime in the 1990s. . This created an impression that the American crime rate was rising when it was actually declining, that did not reflect reality. When compared with other nations the United States does not have a greatly disproportionately higher per capita crime rate, what it does have is an exceptionally high incarceration rate. .
One of the consequences of this "imprisonment binge" is that “the prison has gone from being a failed correctional facility, destined for abolition, to being a major and apparently indispensable element of modern social order. “. In the 1970s, prison rebellions sparked critiques suggesting that the penal system of the time was a failure. This is at a time when the incarceration rate was one third of what it is today. . A number of factors including increased media coverage contributed to a shift from this social attitude to our present circumstances. As crime rates rose in the 1980s it became more and more accepted that it was necessary to restructure the justice system to simultaneously reduce the crime rate and provide more evenly enforced laws. This placed the United States in the position where the public mandate to its politicians was to revise the laws to incorporate both concerns. This social concern is not generally reflected in individual opinions. It is to be noted that when polled one in which ordinary people, judges and lawyers simultaneously want :offenders punished and rehabilitated,: and are :willing to see taxes increased to pay for treatment programs but not for prison building,” and are “insistent on prison sentences only for the most violent crimes.: .
James Austin, John Clark, Patricia Hardyman and D. Alan Henry explore how has crime policy, particularly "Three-Strikes, and You’re Out" legislation contributed to this escalation in the prison population. Motivated by high profile murders perpetrated by repeat criminals the state of Washington in 1993 followed by California and twenty-four (24) other states and the Federal government. . Starting in the 1960s the rehabilitative capabilities of the penal system came under public and political scrutiny by both liberals and conservatives. From the liberal viewpoint the indeterminate sentences, policies and procedures involved in monitoring released rehabilitated offenders resulted in an “intrusive, discriminatory and arbitrary exercise of Power.” . The conservative estimation postulated that the sentences imposed were not sufficient to deter crime effectively. As a result, the focus of the criminal justice system shifted to one of “incapacitation, deterrence and retribution” . Liberals saw the existing system as one in which the broad range of discretion exercised by judges and parole boards as containing too much potential for discrimination. Conservatives felt the need for stricter sentences. The result was a call for determinant sentencing regulations including mandatory sentencing and regulations focusing upon repeat offenders and career criminals. . “As a result, frustration rather than reason, determined crime control policy.” .
One of the elements regarding the impact of the broad social shift from a focus on reducing the numbers of individuals incarcerated or under the supervision of the criminal justice system to one with harsher penalties and longer periods of incarceration is the impact upon the society from which these inmates are drawn. Unlike other social structures evolved as the result of policies that were collectively agreed upon. Enacted at a time when crime rates were already falling the new legislation put in force increased prison population without having a resultant effect on the crime rate. Instead it created a situation where 30% of black males, 14% of Hispanics and 4% of white males will spend time in prison. . This created a sector of society wherein whole groups of the population are affected by the legal system. “For these sectors of the population, imprisonment has become normalized.”
The changes in State and Federal enforcement policies and the resultant incarceration boom has functioned as a means by which to govern social marginality by creating a "criminal class". . As these concerns regarding the penal system were reconciling themselves, the issues regarding other social institutions also can under greater social and political scrutiny. Social policy has become more punitive. . Under Regan, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) reduced funding to social institutions created to expand the war on poverty.. Since the 1980s a correlation developed between states that spent less on social welfare, states with higher incarceration rates and states with larger black populations. . As a result findings suggest that “penal and welfare institutions have come to form a single policy regime aimed at the governance of social marginality.” . The higher rate of incarceration in social groups where a high rate of incarceration results in the direct per knowledge through a friend, spouse, relative, or neighbor becomes a shaping institution for that sector of the society. . This factor contributes to the further disenfranchisement of marginalized sectors of society.
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