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Crime Rates and Public Safety

June 30, 2016

Statistics show that crime rates rose dramatically during the 1960’s and 1970’s. As a result, people grew concerned about the amount of violent crime, and lawmakers took a tough stance on crime. During the next two decades, lawmakers enacted laws requiring mandatory maximum sentences, three strikes rules with enhancements, and life without parole; thus, more people were locked up for longer periods of time.

By 2013, there were 4,575 prisons in the U.S. with 2,720,300 inmates, more than in any other country. 33 of these prisons are in the state of California (30 for men and 3 for women), and at one point, these prisons housed about 150,000 prisoners, more than twice the 70,000 in Pennsylvania and well over capacity. (All the numbers in this article are in the public domain and can easily be found on the Internet.)

As the prison population in California grew, bunks were crowed into gymnasiums, and inmates were sent out of state. One early solution that was used to ease overcrowding was to send petty offenders back to the county jail to serve their sentence. This, of course, led to overcrowding in the jails. In one San Diego County Jail, every other cell was converted with to contain a three-man bunk. I spent a portion of my nearly two years in county living in one of these cells, and I can truthfully say, 3 men in a cell is too many.

Although crime rates have fallen in recent years, the prison population has remained high as the U.S. holds 25% of the world’s inmates. This is mainly due to over sentencing. With the current Three Strikes Law, sentences can be doubled. I caught a charge, while in prison, for manufacturing a weapon. It was a sixteen-month term that was doubled to thirty-two due to a prior strike against me. I must serve 80% of this time subsequent to my life sentence, if I am granted parole.

Along with the Three Strikes Law came Nickel and Dime enhancements (5 and 10 years). My co-defendant received only a 6 year sentence for our crime in return for testifying against me. This 6 years was then doubled to 12, because of his prior strike, plus a 5 year enhancement for a similar past crime. These enhancements create a loophole in double jeopardy laws; that is, a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime, but they can be given a second sentence for the same crime, if they come back into the system for committing another crime. Sentence enhancements also raise the costs to the state (i.e., taxpayers) by keeping prisoners incarcerated longer.
When the Three Strikes Law came into effect in 1994, it was legal to apply it retroactively; therefore, it affected those who’d committed crimes any time before 1994. Until recently, an offender could be struck out for a non-violent crime like petty theft. Although 80% of those serving life sentences are convicted of murder, the Three Strikes Law has contributed to the large number of life sentences.

Approximately 160,000 prisoners are serving life sentences in state and federal prisons throughout the U.S. 49,000 are serving life without parole. California holds the largest population of lifers with 40,362, followed by Florida with 12,549.
The “tough on crime” approach is politically popular, and the government has ben toughest on lifers. Many serving a 7, 15, or 25 to life sentence actually die in prison. California is only one of four states in which the Governor has the authority to reverse the Parole Board’s decision to release a life who has served his time and was found to be suitable for parole., In three years of office, California Governor Gray Davis approved 2 releases. His successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, allowed 557 to go home, only 27% of those found suitable by the parole board. This has to make you wonder: what are the Board members being paid for if the Governor won’t let them do their job and uphold their decisions?

Only recently, with overcrowding, much needed changes have been made to Juvenile Sentencing Laws, and two Supreme court Rulings have ordered parole officials to consider more than just the severity of the crime, but also the inmate’s prison record and volunteer work, such as self-help groups and school/vocational training. This shifts the focus from the crime to rehabilitation. As a result, more lifers have been paroled. Unfortunately, most vocational training courses are only available on lower level yards, while most lifers are on high security yards for many years. Governor Jerry Brown has affirmed 82% of the Parole Board’s decisions.

A Stanford University Study that tracked 360 murderers released between 1990 and 2010 found that only 5 committed new crimes and none of these crimes were murder. Still advocates for crime victims claim the release of theses offenders is an injustice and poses a danger to society. “This is playing Russian Roulette with public safety,” said Christine Ward, Executive Director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance.

There is a difference between justice and retribution. Retribution is a debt an offender must pay to their victim(s) and society through monetary fees and fines and by being incarcerated for some portion of their life. Justice is there to make sure the retribution is fair. Many people argue that someone who’s taken a life should never be free to do the things that their victim can’t. However, the law states that if an offender has made amends and proven to be rehabilitated with a reasonable plan for reintegration with society, then they must be released. Most lifers are middle-aged by the time they are eligible for parole, and, as shown by the Stanford Study, far less likely to reoffend.

If the current approach for mass incarceration continues, the number of prisoners will grow ever larger, and more prisons will be needed to hold them. When laws are passed that stop the building of new prisons, then existing prisons will have units built onto them. This has already occurred at several institutions in California. Mule Creek State Prison has added a facility at a cost of 330 million dollars that will house an additional 1,584 inmates.

Germany has faced this progressive cycle and found solutions. Germany has fewer prisons than the U.S. and a lower recidivism rate. The atmosphere of a German prison is also different. Prisoners are given the responsibility of holding the key to their own cell; a cell which is much larger and more confortahbe than the cramped quarters of my living space in California. The Germans have a greater focus on rehabilitation through counseling, classes and vocational opportunities that teach social and work sills want to prepare an inmate for a productive life in society.

Rehabilitation starts within the individual. If a person is stubborn and does not want to change they are not going to. By offering more programs and incentives, in particular for lifers, who often feel they have nothing to lose, the Department of Corrections would be taking a big step forward in inspiring positive change.

Many people oppose prison reform, because prisons are for punishment, and they do not want to reward, comfort, or pamper prisoners. Prisons are also a rehab, and it’s not about pampering prisoners, it’s about creating a positive atmosphere to teach those willing to learn how to be citizens again when they are released from prison.
California Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkley) has said, “We need to change the culture in prison from punishment to a culture that acknowledges the ability of people to change and encourages that change.”

The change is one that’s beneficial in the long run for everyone. About half of offenders in California reoffend when they get out. If treatments were increased, the recidivism rate would fall, and with it, the prison population. More importantly, the national crime rate would continue to decline and public safety would increase.


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  1. Laura B permalink

    It sounds like you are on the right track with the laws for rehabilitation. All the incarcerated should be given the right to take classes for high school and college classes or shop/technical education. It makes all the sense in the world to do this. We all need to encourage and write to our elected officials to make changes like this. I had heard of 3 strikes laws, but didnt realize all these other laws existed too. Probably most people dont know about incarceration laws. I have always wondered if kids as young as 12 years old were taught in school, or printed in widely available sources like phone books, the basic laws of incarceration, crime would go down. Most people, do not know what the legal consequences are for even traffic laws.

    German legal philosophy is based on a different concept that developed over many centuries. French law is based on Codes that havent changed for centuries, as far as I know, and there are thousands of them. Italian law, the same way, very old; no trial by jury as we know it and the jurors dont come to consensus as a group. I dont know that much about law, just discovered all this in a small, old book that someone gave me. Then I started reading about the laws of European countries on wikipedia. America has, technically, law based on the Common law concepts of Great Britain, which means that law is developed by past “case law”. Maybe your Grandma can send you some info on this if you are interested.


  2. Law can be such a headache! Some laws are changing in California, and I’m hoping it will help me get out sooner than I would otherwise.


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