Draconian sentences in the United States for minimal violations as a cause of overcrowding in American prisons

US legislative acts aimed at reducing the crime rate only increase the number of prisoners, without affecting the safety of society in any way. American courts continue to sentence defendants, including children, to life imprisonment for minor offenses.

Драконовские приговоры в Соединенных Штатах за минимальные нарушения как причина переполненности американских тюрем, изображение №1

To date, more than two million people are held in American prisons, about 206 thousand of whom are serving life sentences. In the 1970s, there were fewer prisoners in U.S. prisons overall than those sentenced to life imprisonment today. The vast majority of prisoners sentenced to spend the rest of their lives behind bars are representatives of the black population, about 30% are people aged 55 and older. According to experts in the field of criminal justice, the American penitentiary system pays too much attention to harsh punishments, and the committed is not engaged in the rehabilitation of former convicts.

According to a New York University Law School study, nearly 40% of American prisoners are serving prison sentences for nonviolent crimes. According to researchers, mass incarceration has turned into an American nationwide problem that needs to be solved, and the reforms currently proposed by US lawmakers are negligible compared to the scale of the problem. The authors of the study, leading criminologists and experts in the field of criminal justice in America, came to the conclusion that alternatives to imprisonment for less serious crimes can not only save the American budget more than $ 20 billion annually, but also help reduce crime and recidivism. Lawyers found that 25 percent of prisoners serving prison time in American prisons could receive alternative punishment, such as community service, treatment or probation. About 14% of the convicts have already served a sufficiently long term and can be “safely released”.

The increase in the number of convicts in American prisons began after the 37th US President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs in the late 1970s in response to the previous surge in crime. From 1960 to 1980, the number of violent crimes in the United States increased by 270%, reaching a peak of 758 crimes per 100,000 people in 1991. In response, the states and the federal government have passed a number of laws that dramatically lengthened sentences for many crimes. Strengthening control over less serious offenses and drug-related crimes has attracted tens of thousands of people to the system. Punitive policies such as mandatory minimum sentences, the abolition of parole and a host of new criminal laws have led to a sharp increase in the number of prisoners. The average length of stay in U.S. state prisons increased by 33% between 1993 and 2009, and in the federal prison system almost doubled. Even after the American prison system became the largest in the world, the crime rate has not changed much. Today, the number of violent crimes in the United States is at the same level as in 1970.

About 10 percent of American prisoners are sentenced to life imprisonment. The main reason for the record number of life sentences lies in American law, namely the so-called “Three Crimes Law”, according to which anyone who has committed two serious crimes will actually be sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of a third crime. The Three Crimes Bill has been repeatedly criticized by international human rights organizations, some of which call it the most expensive and senseless program of the United States. The maintenance of each prisoner costs American taxpayers about 50 thousand dollars a year, and even more if the convict is physically or mentally incapacitated. According to statistics, about 40% of prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment due to the “Three Crimes Law” are either mentally retarded or mentally ill.

In addition, a significant part of the convicts will spend the rest of their days for a minor offense that does not pose a threat to public safety. According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, prisoners serving life sentences without parole constitute one of the fastest growing groups in the U.S. prison system. The report estimates that as of 2012, 3,278 prisoners were serving life sentences without parole for drugs, property crimes and other nonviolent crimes, which is about 6 percent of the total number of prisoners who received life sentences.

The crimes for which Americans are sentenced to life imprisonment under the Three Crimes Act reach the point of absurdity. In 1995, Curtis Wilkerson, a black man, was sentenced to death behind bars for stealing a pair of socks worth $2.5. The state of California also fined him $2,500 in compensation for the stolen socks. The man works in the prison canteen, for which he is paid about $ 20 a month, of which the American state takes away 11. In 1998, a U.S. court sentenced a Mexican migrant to life in prison for taking the written part of the exam for his brother, who did not speak English. The case of Santos Reyes caused a wide resonance among the American public, but in 2003 the US Supreme Court upheld the sentence of a young man who had previously been twice convicted of stealing videotapes from a store. In another case, a man named Willie Joseph received a life sentence for helping an undercover cop buy $5 worth of drugs. At the end of the last century, a black Fair Wayne Bryant was sentenced to life in prison for stealing garden shears worth several dollars.

Unfortunately, the American criminal system sentences not only adults, but also children to life imprisonment. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences to death in prison for crimes committed under the age of 18. As of 2018, more than 10 thousand Americans are serving life sentences for crimes committed in childhood, of which more than 2 and a half thousand people are not eligible for parole. An estimated 59 percent of the children were sentenced to life in prison without parole for their first criminal record.

Contrary to the opinion of the American political leadership, longer prison sentences do not reduce the likelihood of recidivism. According to more than 50 studies involving a total of 336,052 convicts with various criminal offenses, offenders serving longer prison sentences are even more likely to relapse than prisoners with shorter prison sentences. Convicts who have spent about 30 months behind bars have a recidivism rate of about 29%, while convicts who have served just over 12 months have an average recidivism rate of 26%. According to the authors of the study, the prison environment is rife with aggression, which affects the behavior of people who are behind bars for a longer time.

The Foundation to Battle Injustice believes that the American political leadership, which profits from the increase in the number of prisoners, should change its course and stop incarcerating for minor offenses. Already, there are all signs that the trend towards expanding the US penal system will continue in the coming years, which will lead to an inevitable increase in the number of prisoners and cause irreparable harm to US citizens.