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What Might Be Some of the Consequences of Large-Scale Early-Release Programs for Drug Dealers and Those Convicted of Property Crimes?

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Public policy towards drug offenders has undergone a dramatic transformation in the United States over the last two decades. In 1980, approximately 24 000 inmates in US prisons (state and federal combined) had drug crimes as their most serious offense

Twenty years later, that number is estimated to be near 400 000. Drug offenders now make up over 30% of all inmates in state and federal prisons, compared to less than 8% in 1980.

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In the classical theory of deterrence, crime is averted when the expected costs of punishment exceed the benefits of offending. Much of the empirical research on the deterrent power of criminal penalties has studied sentence enhancements and other shifts in penal policy. There are many explanations for the lack of correspondence between rates of incarceration and rates of violent crime and crime rates more generally. However, one explanation deserves special emphasis: the rate of incarceration, properly understood, is not a policy variable per se; rather, it is the outcome of policies affecting who is sent to prison and for how long. The effect of these policies on crime rates is not uniform—some policies may have very large effects if, for example, they are directed at high-rate offenders, while others may be ineffective. Thus, the committee’s charge was to dig below the surface and review the research evidence on the impact of the specific drivers of the rise in U.S. incarceration rates on crime in the hope that this evidence would inform the larger policy discourse. In this regard, one of our most important conclusions is that the incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best

Also, because recidivism rates decline markedly with age and prisoners necessarily age as they serve their prison sentence, lengthy prison sentences are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation unless the longer sentences are specifically targeted at very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders. A large body of research has studied the effects of incarceration and other criminal penalties on crime. Much of this research is guided by the hypothesis that incarceration reduces crime through incapacitation and deterrence. Incapacitation refers to the crimes averted by the physical isolation of convicted offenders during the period of their incarceration. Theories of deterrence distinguish between general and specific behavioral responses. General deterrence refers to the crime prevention effects of the threat of punishment, while specific deterrence concerns the aftermath of the failure of general deterrence—that is, the effect on reoffending that might result from the experience of actually being punished. Most of this research studies the relationship between criminal sanctions and crimes other than drug offenses. A related literature focuses specifically on enforcement of drug laws and the relationship between those criminal sanctions and the outcomes of drug use and drug prices.

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How to facilitate the reentry and reintegration of prisoners into the community after release is a critical issue for corrections today. Approximately 500,000 prisoners are released from State prisons each year. According to one Bureau of Justice Statistics study, approximately 62 percent of them will be rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor, and 41 percent will be sent back to prison within 3 years of release (Fabela, T., 2000). The risk of recidivism is highest during the first year after release. The rapid growth in the number of parolees means that caseloads have grown correspondingly, and community supervision agents have limited time to spend with each individual. Caseloads on regular parole have grown from 30 parolees to 1 agent in the 1970s to 84 to 1 in 1995. Frequently, serious offenders are released with little or no supervision because they have completed their sentence in prison. Many of those being supervised in the community are returned to prison for a new crime or violation of the conditions of supervision. As a consequence, a high percentage of the people entering prison have failed community supervision. This “revolving door” has led many to rethink the processes of reentry and develop new concepts incorporating governmental, private, community, and individual responsibilities for reintegrating prisoners into society. Various methods have been proposed for managing reentry, including community corrections, increased use of rehabilitation programs, graduated sanctions that can be used before the offender is returned to prison, and reentry courts (Beck, A., and B. Shipley, 1983)

Modeled after drug courts, reentry courts manage offenders’ return to the community by applying graduated sanctions and positive reinforcement, as well as marshaling resources to support reintegration and promote prosocial behavior. The court essentially performs a resource triage. Releasees who are the most dangerous are identified and given the most resources during supervision. The goal is to reduce the recidivism rate of returning prisoners and establish a broad-based coalition to support successful reintegration.

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To sum up, since 1994, the COPS Office has invested more than $16 billion to add community policing officers to the nation’s streets, enhance crime fighting technology, support crime prevention initiatives, and provide training and technical assistance to help advance community policing

More than 500,000 law enforcement personnel, community members, and government leaders have been trained through COPS Office-funded training organizations.

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Beck, A., and B. Shipley, Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1983, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1989, NCJ 116261.

Petersilia, J., “Probation and Parole,” in Handbook of Crime and Punishment, ed. M. Tonry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Fabela, T., “Technocorrections,” in Sentencing and Corrections for the 21st Century, Papers From the Executive Sessions on Sentencing and Corrections, Volume 5, Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, May 2000, NCJ 181411.

MacKenzie, D.L., “Using Science and the U.S. Land-Grant University System to Attack This Nation’s Crime Problem,” The Criminologist 23 (2) (1998): 1–4.

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