It is such a horrible thing to deprive a person of his liberty and mobility. Even imprisoned birds and wild animals are easily broken deep within if they are not allowed to roam free in their natural world. It is such an inhumane way to treat another fellow, and this is perhaps the reason for the use of incarceration to punish criminals. In other words a life behind bars ought to teach them a lesson. On the other hand, one can argue that sending offenders to a jailhouse is not just a punitive act but also a mechanism that ensures they are no longer capable of committing the same type of crimes. However, overcrowded prisons and the irrefutable fact that significant crime statistics pointing to a worsening problem of higher crime rate and greater numbers of repeat offenders. These things compel policymakers and community stakeholders to evaluate once more the proposition that prison walls and iron bars are not solutions to the crime problem.
From a Sociological Perspective
It is interesting to note that those who built America's prison systems were influenced by one of the most significant theoretical frameworks in the world of sociology, and this is none other than the functionalist perspective or the structural functionalism framework of sociology. One can make this argument, because in functionalism, there is invisible force that brings out the best in a particular society. In other words, every institution and every component plays a part. In this particular context, the justice component of a social order comes into the fore when criminals blatantly disregards the rule of law. When lawbreakers operate with impunity, it is the function of law enforcement groups operating under the justice component of the social order to apprehend and initiate the trial or investigation with regards to the accusation or discovery of a crime. Thus, it is easy to say that the original creators of America's penitentiary systems were influenced by this idea, such that prison walls, prison guards, and impregnable perimeter security are critical components in a process that isolates the criminal from other members of society. Nevertheless, this mindset has to be reexamined. Interestingly, enough, the same functionalism theory can be used against the idea that prison systems are not effective in accomplishing goals in the context of building a better community and consequently a stronger and more prosperous nation. It is based on a functionalist principle to never focus on one component alone, because it is prudent to consider the parts that make a whole. Applying this principle will reveal that current law enforcement strategies in connection with the local courts are unable to reduce the crime rate or facilitate the rehabilitation of the prisoners while they were behind bars.
In the State of California, policymakers and concerned citizens are alarmed by the increasing number of individuals that are serving time behind bars. In addition, current figures also revealed that the said State suffers from a high recidivism rate that can reach as high as 65%. In other words, tens of thousands of inmates that were released after serving time, they came out unreformed, and they committed similar or upgraded crimes, and they discover themselves in a worse place than they did before. Thus, from a functionalist perspective it is high time to find out the impact of incarceration in the lives of inmates.
Using functionalist perspective principles one can argue that there are several factors at work in the problem of overcrowded prison. For example, the system is far from perfect, thus, there are more people that were sent behind bars when they are supposed to go home without having to spend a night behind a correctional facility. In addition, the mere fact that first time offenders are in contact with prisoners that had spent years behind bars or had committed felonies that are far severe, this creates an impact that the justice system finds impossible to trace and rectify. In many states all over America, there is the problem created by mandatory minimum prison terms. When this problem is combined with the different availability of correctional resources makes it impossible to provide just and uniform sentencing. In addition, mandatory minimum prison sentences forces judges to hand out sentences even if wisdom dictates that there could have been other options that brings all parties to a resolution without sending someone to jail.
It is not just the overcrowded prisons that are of major concern to American society, because if one limits himself to this problem, the Federal Government can easily mandate the construction of new prison facilities. It is good to take a little more effort in absorbing the ramifications of the following statement: “Between 1972 and 2008, the number of men, women, and children locked up in the United States has grown by a historically unprecedented 705%. It is now made clear that the system does not work. Furthermore, overcrowded prisons are dangerous to the health of the inmates. Nonetheless, the real problem lurks within the difficult to monitor social interactions between prisoners.
In accordance to structure functionalism principles, the prison systems must be viewed as part of the whole society. In other words, it is not practical or wise to pretend that the U.S. penitentiary is isolated from the rest of America. From a sociological perspective overcrowded jails, with growing numbers of heinous crimes, and recidivism are symptoms of a graver threat within the social order.
Solving the prison overcrowding problem requires complicated application of integrated strategies. Therefore, it is foolish to try to solve it with one legal strategy or a national program. It is best to take on the huge problem piecemeal and to focus on one issue at a time. In this particular context, it is best to focus on restorative justice or victim-offender mediation as one of the practical solutions to overcrowding and high crime rate.
Restorative justice immediately addresses the problem of minimum sentencing requirements. As a result, the Department of Justice is now armed with a weapon that enables them to punish the guilty party, but the punishment does not lead to other problems. In the past, a first time offender guilty of a minor offense sometimes end up with hard core criminals. Due to the interactions between these two groups, the neophyte offender versus the veteran offender, this less than ideal set-up enables the transfer of knowledge and skills to future generation of criminals.
The use of restorative justice strategies allows for the application of just punishment for a crime. However, the added benefit is that the guilty party has the opportunity to change his or her ways without being condemned to be sent to prison. Functionalist perspectives should alert policymakers to the impact of sending a teenager behind bars. There are numerous and difficult to quantify negative impacts that could have scarred that person for life. Policymakers should consider very well the impact of having a felony record. It is more difficult to find a job and other avenues of economic uplift once a person has been branded by the jail mark. But more importantly, the psychological trauma of imprisonment can be prevented.
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According to one commentary: “rather than focusing on the traditional rehabilitation versus retribution debate, many researchers and policymakers now consider restorative justice and more precisely the concept of restoration, as a valid alternative. Consider the oft-repeated case of a teenager stealing an iPad or smart phone. This young teenager gets arrested and he spends time behind bars. It is easy to demonize the thief, especially in circumstances wherein the guilty party appeared callous as he did not consider the fact that he was stealing from a child, the elderly or someone who is weak and cannot defend himself. It is human nature to seek retribution and for the offending party to pay for his grave misconduct. However, in many cases, only a few takes time to understand the other side of the story. A child growing up in foster homes or a child growing up in a gang-infested community with no hopes of ever becoming a productive citizen and to be free from the influence of crime. In other cases, teenagers are forced to do things as part of a hazing ritual before they can become a bonafide member of a gang or fraternity. In these examples, sending these minors or teenagers to a life behind prison walls and cold steel can cause more harm than good. In the said cases, the said children are fully convinced that there is no hope for them, and if they ever taste the cold indifference of a prison block, their worst fears are realized, and when they are freed, they will come back guilty of a more serious crime.
The high crime rate and the high rate of recidivism or repeat offenders can be traced back to the problem of prison overcrowding. Using functionalist principles, policymakers must develop a strategy that can work around the problem, and the best way to do that is to use restorative justice as the primary weapon in dealing with first time offenders and those who are guilty of less serious offenses. In this manner, society does not only succeed in reducing the number of inmates, it also prevents a chain-reaction of events that creates hardened criminals out of first time offenders.