Crime and Punishment Analysis

A quick look at our history will show that the American criminal justice system has changed greatly over the years. From the purpose of prisons to the number of people incarcerated, American imprisonment has evolved. The question is whether these changes are for the better or worse. surveyed over 1,000 people to get their take on the American criminal justice system, including their perceptions of sentence lengths and prison alternatives.

We Agree There Needs to Be a Change

More than two-thirds of participants agreed there are too many people in American prisons. That being said, around a fifth of the people surveyed thought the number of people in prison was appropriate. The survey results also varied based on participants’ race/ethnicity and political affiliation. Over 70% of both Democrats and Independents thought there were too many people in the prison system, while less than 50% of Republicans believed the same thing. However, more than 70% of both Hispanic/Latino and black or African American respondents concurred.

Some Surprising Numbers

Black or African American and Hispanic/Latino participants were also the most likely to feel crime punishments in the U.S. were too harsh. Only around 40% of white Americans agreed. 

When delved into the incarceration numbers from 2018 to 2019, provided by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), the statistics showed that white and black or African Americans made up a similar percentage of incarcerated individuals, at about 20% each. However, Hispanic/Latino people made up over 55% of the inmate population at the federal level, with over a third of their crimes attributed to immigration. The study also states that President Trump’s recent crackdown on immigration might be a possible reason for this escalated number. 

Does the Crime and Time Match Up?

It makes sense to assume a murder charge will come with a heavier sentence than a trespassing charge, but what does the actual time served look like compared to what’s sentenced? Even though 40% of participants believed American crime punishments are too extreme, they also felt prison sentences should be about three years longer, on average. The study found that respondents wanted particularly harsh punishment for individuals guilty of infringing on American freedoms. Instead of the 1.8 years actually served, on average, the participants wanted to see over eight years served. 

Do We Need Prisons for Rehabilitation?

Alternatives to prison are steadily making their way into the conversation about criminal justice reform. It appears that some crimes don’t necessarily benefit from seeing a prison cell. If that’s the case, what are the alternatives? The study found that less than 1 in 10 participants thought marijuana possession should result in incarceration, while sexual abuse crimes saw over 80% approval for prison time. Fraud, firearm offenses, and environmental offenses saw a higher percentage than most advocating for fines in place of prison. 

Should We Help Prisoners While Incarcerated?

For those who are incarcerated, the idea is to rehabilitate them so they don’t re-offend once they are released. How should we go about making that happen, though? A majority of those surveyed agreed that mental health programs should be available for inmates. A significant portion also felt religious or spiritual activities should be made available. However, not as many people believed paid job opportunities should be offered to prisoners.

It’s Time for a Change

The number of people incarcerated in America continues to rise, even though many Americans disagree with how many people are going to prison. Tackling the problem with our system goes further than this fact, though. Political affiliation polarizes the way people feel about different aspects of the conversation, but overall, prison reform seems to be bipartisan. Americans agree we need to change the way we do things. It’s time to make sure the punishment equals the crime.