Criminal Justice | Introduction to Section 6

Criminal Justice: An Overview of the System by Adam J. McKee

Introduction to Section 6

In the grand scheme of the history of criminal justice, the idea of incarceration as punishment is a relatively new idea. Those who violated ancient laws were sentenced to corporal punishments, fines, and death. The first modern prisons began in the eighteenth century when the Quakers, motivated by religious altruism, devised them as an alternative to corporal and capital punishment. The intent of these reformers was to rehabilitate offenders through hard physical labor, religious study, and penitence. The contemporary political climate has largely replaced these altruistic ideas with the ideas of deterrence, retribution, and incapacitation.

Unfortunately, the prison industrial complex is a growth industry, and efforts at reducing the number of Americans in confinement have met with only marginal success. Elected officials, eager to demonstrate a tough stance against crime to the public, have created harsh sentencing laws that have filled existing prisons over capacity, and have spawned the building of many new prisons. The financial costs of this have been staggering.

The trend of American incarceration seems to be continuing downward. In 2012, the number of admissions to state and federal prisons in the United States was 609,800 offenders, the lowest number since 1999. The number of releases from U.S. prisons in 2012 (637,400) exceeded that of admissions for the fourth consecutive year, contributing to the decline in the total U.S. prison population. Many reform-minded critics argue that most prisoners are locked up on drug charges, but the statistics do not support this view. In 2011, the majority of state prisoners (53%) were serving time for violent offenses. This downward trend is not encouraging considering the size of the problem to begin with. At yearend 2012, about 6.94 million people were supervised by the U.S. adult correctional systems, which was the equivalent to about 1 in 35 U.S. adults. On the brighter side, this was the lowest rate observed since 1997.

Not all of these numbers represent prisoners in state prisons. In 2012, about 3.94 million offenders were supervised in the community on probation and 851,200 on parole. Around 1.35 million were incarcerated in state prisons, 217,800 in federal prisons, and 744,500 in local jails. The largest jurisdictions account for a disproportionate amount of those under confinement or supervision. The federal prison system had the largest sentenced prison population (196,600 inmates) in 2012, followed by Texas (157,900), California (134,200), Florida (101,900), and New York (54,100).

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Last Updated:  06/04/2021

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