The United States has the largest prison population in the developed world. This is in part due to the harsh prison sentences that have been given out to offenders. The sentencing practice has changed over the decades as in the past probation officers would provide recommendations regarding the sentencing based on what they knew about the offender. According to Langan (1991), the prison population began soaring in 1973 as sentencing became harsher due to increased crime. Increased sentencing has been a result of the changes in the law that have come in the form of mandatory minimum sentences, habitual offender laws, death penalties, and truth in sentencing laws.
Mandatory minimum sentences serve to enforce that anyone who commits the crime must serve at least a minimum of set years regardless of the offender's condition in order to bring the crime rate down. Mandatory minimum sentences can result in harsh prison sentences for menial crimes. Habitual offender laws are created to reduce recidivism by punishing offenders harsher if they have already committed the crime before. Examples of these minimum sentence laws are the three strikes law in California. These laws also result in harsh prison sentences. Truth in sentencing laws serve to ensure that an offender serves the number of years they were sentenced to rather than being paroled earlier. The law was designed to deter crime however it just served to increase the amount of the prison population.
Punishment of crimes should be based on the offender as not all crimes are equal. A judge has the power to drastically affect the life prospects of the offenders. By considering each case separately a judge has the ability to punish an offender with accuracy with promotes justice. As Tierney (2013) found, prison sentences usually sentence the offender and his family to a lifetime of poverty. Prison sentences cannot be given out lightly as judges must take into account the offender and their life experience. This would allow the judge to consider alternatives to prison sentences such as rehabilitative services or treatment centers which would be more effective in reducing recidivism rates. By taking these considerations into account prison populations could be reduced and a more effective penal system could be devised which might actually be effective in reducing crime rates.
Langan, P. A. (1991). America's Soaring Prison Population. Science (New York, NY), 251(5001), 1568.
Tierney, J. (2013, February 18). Prison and the Poverty Trap. The New York Times. Retrieved from<http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/19/science/long-prison-terms-eyed-as-contributing-to-poverty.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>