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Criminal Justice Reform Trends in the U.S.

The numbers are frightening. Over 2.3 million people are held in state and federal prisons in the United States, according to TribTalk, at a cost of $80 billion annually to taxpayers. Although 95% of the people will eventually be released, more than two-thirds will be rearrested within three years.

This is the vicious circle of American criminal justice, where the prison system emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation and the judicial system favors mandatory minimum sentencing laws rather than sentencing on a case-by-case basis.

Criminal Justice Trends

The numbers paint a bleak picture of a broken system. According to Prison Fellowship:

  • More than 10.5 million arrests were made in the United States in 2017.
  • The top three arrest categories were drug abuse violations, larceny-theft and driving under the influence.
  • Only 3% of Americans charged with a federal crime will receive a jury trial.
  • Only 5% of Americans charged with a state crime will receive a jury trial.
  • Of every 28 American children, one has a parent in prison.
  • 70 million (one in three) adults have a criminal record.
  • It costs taxpayers $33,274 per year to incarcerate one adult.

Why Criminal Justice Reform is Needed

The sheer number of prisoners in the justice system and the cost of keeping them there makes criminal justice reform a priority. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. But why?

The website Criminal Justice Programs offers three main reasons:

  • Prison overcrowding. American prisons were not designed to handle the huge number of people incarcerated. Non-violent offenders make up the majority, and many observers blame unfair drug charges as the reason. Stricter drug laws caused the number of incarcerated drug offenders to rise an astounding 1,200% between 1980 and 2018. Ex-offenders often go back to prison because of ineffective rehabilitation efforts. Overcrowding can limit a prison's ability to meet basic human needs, prevent enough funds for proper rehabilitation, and result in less money for inmate education and staff funding.
  • Mandatory maximum sentencing laws. Critics of mandatory sentencing laws say they lead to onerous sentences because they call for hard black and white reasoning and limit a judge's power to consider individual circumstances. The federal prison system has grown dramatically since mandatory maximum sentencing laws for drugs went into effect. Low-level offenders are hit especially hard. Non-violent drug offenses are common among people of color, the poor and drug addicts who many times cannot afford legal representation.
  • Racism in the prison system. African Americans in 2016 represented 12% of the U.S. population but 33% of the prison population. Caucasians represented 64% of the population but only 30% of the prison population. Hispanics were 16% of the nation's population but 23% of prison inmates.

Is Change in the Wind?

Several states are making progress in addressing criminal justice reform. The Equal Justice Initiative reports that Louisiana has expanded probation eligibility to people convicted of third-time non-violent offenses and first-time low-level violence. Arkansas, Hawaii, Michigan and Montana expanded parole eligibility, reclassified low-level felonies to misdemeanors, streamlined the parole review process and limited imprisonment for technical violations.

The website also reports that New Jersey, Arkansas and Vermont have passed legislation addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Criminal Justice Programs advocates reducing harsh prison sentences, changing the sentencing policy surrounding the war on drugs and decriminalizing certain offenses, including drug possession. It also suggests prioritizing rehabilitation of juvenile drug offenders, changing policies regarding voting rights for previous offenders, and changing maximum sentencing laws.

Still, the criminal justice system is ripe for reform. And graduate programs such as the Texas A&M International University online Master of Science in Criminal Justice offer you the knowledge and tools to address public policy in the criminal justice system. This program, which can be finished in less than a year, delivers an in-depth study of criminological theory and the administration of justice with emphasis on corrections, ethics and legal studies.

The online M.S. in criminology program is perfect for working adults with families and other responsibilities. It offers a chance to learn about comparative criminal justice systems, advanced qualitative methods in criminal justice and cybercrime. And students participate in a capstone project in which they analyze and develop a practical approach to a timely issue facing the American criminal justice system.

Learn more about TAMIU's online M.S. in Criminal Justice program.


TribTalk: Our Criminal Justice System Is Wasting Lives and Taxpayer Dollars

Prison Fellowship: Criminal Justice Trends

Criminal Justice Programs: Criminal Justice Reform and Why America Needs It

Equal Justice Initiative: Report Highlights Top Trends in Criminal Justice Reform

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