The USA has a reputation for harsh treatment of criminals; in some ways, it is the envy of the world. British people say to each other ‘He got 300 years? They don’t mess about in America, we need some of that!’ yet despite the apparent envy of not being soft on crime, lift off the layers and you see a penal system that is anything but perfect.
1. Three Strikes Law
The USA is known throughout the world for having particularly harsh sentences but to the outsider, this is one of the harshest yet. ‘Three strikes’ means for repeat offenders of some crimes, a third offence would carry a mandatory lengthy prison sentence, in some cases as much as 25 years. However, sometimes they are deemed disproportionate or cruel. One particular example saw a man incarcerated for many years for a third offence of stealing food ‘ in the final case a slice of pizza.
2. Prison Population
Proportionally, the USA has one of the highest prison populations in the world: holding as much as 25% of the global population of incarcerated people (and it has 50% of the world’s lawyers!). The prison population increased by 700% between 1970 and 2005 compared to an overall 44% increase in general population. Many of the country’s prisons are operating over their official capacity ‘ overcrowding is known to be psychologically damaging and leads to an increase in violence. The Bureau of Prisons in the USA predicts further increases over the next few years.
3. High Reoffending Rates
Something must be going wrong with the US penal system because the country has one of the highest reoffending rates in the world. Many see their penal system as archaic, ignoring modern methods of rehabilitation and punishment and the fact that 50% of convicts will find themselves back in prison (something that should be avoided) is a dark stain on the justice system of the country. In comparison, the lowest reoffending rate is in Norway, which has an extensive program of rehabilitation and education along with punishment.
4. Racism (1)
There are many aspects of the system which are considered institutionally racist, but this is no more apparent than in the ‘War on Drugs’. According to a report published by Human Rights Watch in 2008, blacks and whites engage in similar levels of drug abuse, sales and trafficking yet it seems that far fewer whites are convicted than blacks, sentences are longer for blacks and the police stop and search more blacks and latinos than whites when it comes to suspected drugs offences.
5. Racism (2)
It also seems that blacks and latinos on average have a longer wait before trial, a longer wait for their sentences and overall longer sentences than their white counterparts who have been convicted of similar counts and similar crimes. Even in cosmopolitan cities like New York, blacks are far more likely to be detained awaiting trial than whites who are far more likely to be released while waiting for trial.
The USA is a Constitutional Republic. This means that individual states are mini countries and permitted to set their own laws on many things. It also means that convicted felons may be prosecuted by the state courts or by the Federal courts. It seems there is a large disparity between what a state might typically pass as a sentence, and what the federal government might pass for the same crime. Federal sentences tend to be longer with shorter parole terms too, though this is sometimes due to the fact that states have a budget to work too ‘ it costs around $40,000 per year to house a prisoner.
7. Trial by Media
Where many countries have legal limits on what the media can publish about cases, the defendant and the crimes, in the USA the free press arguably has too much freedom. Particularly, Conrad Black points to his own trial in the early years of the last decade where he was not granted the presumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ that he was supposed to enjoy in the court. The loosest libel laws in the world means that innocent people, or those who are vilified by the press who are also permitted to invent crimes, means there is no legal recourse for individuals to clear their names.
8. Compassionate Release
Many countries in the west realise that it serves no purpose to keep a prisoner incarcerated who has just months to live. However, there is no set of formal guidelines for US prisoners for release on compassionate grounds. In some cases, prisoners are being refused release at all, some are released with six months to live, others who have been told that they have several years left. Grounds for release varies from prison to prison and state to state. Some challenge this on the count that it breaks the Eighth Amendment.
9. It’s All About the Money
In an ideal world, a person’s trial would consider only their innocence or guilt in light of the evidence and the sentencing in their guilt would reflect a fair and proportionate punishment for the crime. In the USA, many cases (and even the guilt or innocence) relies a lot on the quality of the lawyer and his ability to persuade. Nothing wrong in this, but when the importance of rhetoric becomes more important than the evidence, the difference between your innocence and guilt could depend solely on which lawyers you could afford.
10. Treatment of Children
There have been some shocking stories on treatment of child offenders in the USA. Solitary confinement is used as a form of temporary punishment, but it is proven as psychologically damaging, even more so for children. Many legal bodies have called for it to be outlawed in the penal system. There are also a number of children serving life sentences, something that many other countries will not do ‘ the USA is the only country that gives whole life sentences (without parole) to children.
Despite the apparent envy, the justice system of the USA is seen in some other countries as unnecessarily harsh, barbaric and in some cases institutionally cruel, particularly with regard to the solitary confinement of children. There are reformers working to make the penal system a less harsh place and hopefully, to improve all aspects of crime punishment.