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A Just America: How Punitive Sentencing Has Hurt, Not Helped America

by Mike Creef, Staff Writer
Published: Last Updated on

Reading Time 2 mins 1 sec

Over the last 40 years, the U.S. has seen a 500% increase in people in the Nation’s prisons and jails. On any given day, over 2.2 million people are sitting in 3,134 local jails, 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, and 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, amongst other forms of correctional facilities. What’s worse is the number of people sitting in jails not convicted of a crime.  An astounding 74% of people in local jails have never been convicted of a crime! Three out of four people are sitting in jail merely because they cannot afford their freedom thanks to bail practices put in place.

Our justice system is what you would call a punitive justice system. It seeks to impose a punishment, by deprivation or restriction, on the offender. The majority of the focus is placed on the offender, believing that punishment can change behavior. While there is data to back this belief, it’s not merely that cut and dry. There are many other factors to consider when determining the effectiveness of a punitive justice system and what the better alternatives may be.

The justice system is a huge multi-billion dollar industry that is so massively fragmented and intertwined that if you try and pull one string to correct an inequity, you’d be pulling about five other issues with it. Various government agencies utilizing local jails, cash bail, prison labor, and privatized for-profit prisons are just a few of the biggest concerns our justice system faces.

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Mass incarceration will go down as one of the most significant issues that have plagued the U.S. in the 20th and 21st centuries. Our country’s infatuation with locking people up inside a cell without any real focus on rehabilitation has hurt our society more than it has helped. Once offenders are released, they often lack the social, economic, and professional skills to assimilate back into and contribute to society smoothly.

To indeed be a world-leader when it comes to justice, the U.S. needs to adopt and develop a more therapeutic approach to sentencing. Restorative justice seeks to compensate the victim, repair the harm, and facilitate the offender’s remorse. It also puts a focus on the offender’s humanity.  Restorative justice tries to ensure that an offender has the skills necessary to be a contributing member of society, keeping in mind life after a sentence, which benefits everyone.

Alternative sentencing, a form of restorative justice, is something that is beginning to grow in popularity.  U.S. Judge Carlos Moore recently went viral as he announced he would be introducing an alternative sentence to multiple young first-time offenders who had accepted responsibility for their wrongs. 

“I believe in alternative sentencing, especially when dealing with young people who have accepted responsibility for their wrongs…I believe that by giving the young people unexpected choices or alternatives to jail or a fine I can have a bigger impact on their lives and futures. I really favor rehabilitation over pure punishment,” Judge Moore says.

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Judge Moore’s hope is that more judges across the U.S. begin to adopt this approach. As more judges begin incorporating alternative sentences, and sentences that focus more on restorative justice than punitive, we will begin to see incarceration numbers go down, which will have a positive impact on society as a whole.

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