Apprehension, examination before a judge, and correction are the three components of the U.S. criminal justice system. Apprehension, the investigation and arrest of an individual suspected of committing a crime, is the responsibility of police and other law enforcement agencies. Once apprehended, an individual moves to the court system where a judge or jury listens to all sides of the case and decides on guilt or innocence. If found guilty, the convicted defendant is sentenced by the judge to some form of punishment. Once sentenced, the defendant enters the correctional process for punishment.
The legal term for sentence is "disposition." Disposition ranges from fines to imprisonment in a large, tightly guarded correctional facility. The history of an individual's behavior and the seriousness of the crime are significant factors used in determining the type of punishment.
Courts look carefully at a defendant's past criminal behavior. A first-time offender may be given a lighter sentence than a habitual or repeat offender. For example, if a gun was used in a robbery, placing victims at considerable risk of bodily
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Page 306 | Top of Article harm, a tougher sentence would be handed down than for robbery without using a gun.
Fines, restitution, and community service are common punishments for minor crimes. Fines are based on and taken from an offender's daily income. Restitution is a cash amount paid by the offender to the victim to make up for the victim's loss, like making an offender pay a portion of an injured victim's medical expenses. With community service, offenders pay back the community rather than a specific victim. Courts may order offenders to work for a certain number of hours in local public service organizations or for charitable groups that help their community.
Disposition for more serious crimes called felonies falls into several categories: probation, incarceration (confinement) in a jail or prison, or time in a community-based correctional facility or program. The final two stages of the correctional process are parole or release at the end of a completely served sentence. Most convicted individuals do not serve out their full correctional sentence but are paroled earlier. Parole allows an inmate to leave a correctional facility before serving out his or her full sentence. Upon returning to the community, the parolee is supervised by a parole officer for the remaining sentence period.
Probation is the most common form of correctional punishment for criminal activity. It allows an offender to stay within the community, but under the supervision of a probation officer. Approximately 61 percent of convicted individuals are sentenced to probation. In 2002, there were 3,995,165 adults on probation in the United States.
A judge is never required by law to issue a sentence of probation; it is only given after all aspects of a crime have been considered. Sentencing laws demand that judges make specific determinations about each convicted defendant, such as if this person is a danger to the community. If not, and the judge believes the offender is sorry for his or her crime and will be a law abiding citizen in the future, probation is an appropriate sentence.
Once an offender receives probation, he or she is immediately assigned a probation officer. Conditions of probation
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are set down by the judge in a contract the offender must agree to and sign. The contract lists the kind of behavior (both prohibited and required) the offender must follow during the probation period. Examples of probationary conditions include not owning or possessing a firearm or drinking alcoholic beverages; meeting with the probation officers at assigned times; attending counseling or drug therapy sessions; reporting any changes of address or in living arrangements; and submitting to regular drug testing. Failing to follow the conditions of probation or committing another crime can result in its withdrawal and the offender being sent to jail or prison.
The advantages of a probation sentence over incarceration include allowing the offender to work in the community, earnPage 308 | Top of Article money to support his or her family, and to have the support of friends and family while attending counseling sessions. Probation costs the state only a fraction of what a jail or prison term costs. Offenders are also spared exposure to the harshness of prison life and the hardened criminals who live there.
Disadvantages of probation include the fear of community residents who believe convicted criminals should not be back on the street because they might commit other crimes. Another concern is how inconsistent probation sentences and probation officers can be in their treatment of offenders. Some counties may send offenders to jail for the same crime where others are given probation. Similarly, probation officers may be very strict in one area and very lax in another. While one officer might report the failure to attend a therapy session as a probation violation, another might overlook the absence.
Persons sentenced to jail or prison are imprisoned within the U.S. penal system. Jails are generally operated locally byPage 309 | Top of Article counties or cities; they confine offenders convicted of misdemeanors (minor crimes) whose sentences are for less than one year. They also hold persons awaiting court proceedings such as a trial. There are approximately three thousand jails in the United States, some confine only a small number of prisoners while others hold thousands. Prisons are operated by federal and state authorities plus a few private corporations. They hold offenders convicted of felonies (major crimes) whose sentences are more than one year.
State and federal prisons—called minimum, medium, or maximum-security prisons—vary in their characteristics. Minimum-security prison camps may have no walls or fences and hold only nonviolent offenders who do not pose much of an escape risk. In maximum security facilities, prisoners spend up to twenty-three hours of each day in their individual cells, are heavily guarded, and are considered "escape proof." These prisons hold America's most dangerous and violent criminals.
Beginning in the mid-1980s private corporations provided a new source of prisons. Federal and state governments signedPage 310 | Top of Article contracts with these private companies to house offenders, usually for minimum and medium security facilities, but not maximum-security prisons. The two best-known private correction companies that run over half of the private facilities are Wackenhut Corrections Corporation and Corrections Corporation of America. At the beginning of the twenty-first century private companies accounted for approximately 5 percent of the prison population.
Growing jail and prison populations
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 2,033,331 inmates incarcerated in local jails and federal, state, and private prisons in 2002. This figure represented a rate of 701 persons in custody for every 100,000 persons in the United States. Federal prisons held 151,618 individuals; state prisons held 1,209,640; local jails held 665,475; and inmates in privately operated facilities numbered 6,598. In 1990, there were 1,148,702 inmates in federal state prisons and local jails, representing a rate of 458 for every 100,000 persons. In 1980, however, there were only 329,821 total incarcerated persons.
The rapid increase in prisoners directly relates to the "Get Tough on Crime" legislation passed on both the federal and state levels. In the early 1990s both federal and state governments began what came to be called a "War on Drugs." This "war" was a reaction to a huge increase in drug related offenses throughout the United States. Many states passed legislation to lengthen prison stays for drug offenders, for both first-time and repeat offenders. In 2002 approximately 58 percent of prison inmates were convicted on drug related charges.
States also passed guidelines limiting parole for convicted criminals, creating minimum prison sentences for certain violent felonies, and establishing long required prison time for offenders with three convictions. All of these mandatory requirements contributed significantly to the rise in prison populations
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and the overcrowding of correctional facilities. At the start of the twenty-first century the United States had the highest incarceration rate per its population in the world.
Both federal and state governments constructed new correctional facilities to ease overcrowding. Congress passed the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act authorizing $7.9 billion for prison construction, then quickly added $2.3 billion more as costs and prison populations continued to increase. Large prisons called "megaprisons" were built for up to 20,000 prisoners.
Megaprisons are run on very tight budgets and, in keeping with "Get Tough" policies, many offer no or few rehabilitationPage 312 | Top of Article programs. Many prisons have dropped vocational and technical education programs such as welding or car repair, the very programs that might offer prisoners a chance to succeed after release. Even though studies show 80 percent of offenders have some form of substance abuse problem—drug and alcohol treatment programs are also frequently cut to save money.
Supermax prisons, short for super-maximum security prisons, are designed to keep the most violent or disruptive inmates separated from other prisoners and correction staff. Supermax prisons are generally a special area within an existing prison. In 2002 most states had supermax units, while some prisons such as the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, are designed entirely as supermax facilities.
Inmates are not assigned to supermax incarceration when they enter prison; only extremely disruptive or violent prison behavior such as injuring other inmates or staff, or attempting to escape will get a prisoner sent to supermax. Prisons with these units confine an average of 8 to 10 percent of their prison population in supermax.
Life in a supermax is bleak. Twenty-three hours a day are spent in windowless cells made completely of concrete and steel. One hour is spent showering, in solitary recreation, or in visitation. Anytime prisoners leave their cells, they must wear wrist and ankle irons and are accompanied by several guards. Many supermax units are entirely automated so prisoners never come into direct contact with another human being. Although many prisoners spend only limited time in a supermax unit, returning to the general prison population by
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good behavior, some prisoners spend their entire sentence in supermax.
Death row refers to locations where inmates sentenced to death await execution. In 2001 thirty-eight states and the federal government allowed the use of the death penalty. Many states keep death row inmates separate from others, in special wings or in an entirely different building. Most convicts sentenced to death are men, although there are a growing number of women. In 2001, there were 3,539 males and 54 females on death row awaiting execution. Thirty-seven of the thirty-eight death penalty states had one or more prisoners on death row.
The conditions on death row vary from state to state and prison to prison. The average length of time a prisoner is on death row is about twelve years. The reason inmates spend so long on death row is because of the appeals process, or the opportunity all inmates are given to challenge a court's decision. Working through the appellate system is a lengthy process and can take many years.
There are three types of death row: unreformed, reformed, and mainstream. Unreformed death row prisoners are held in their cells in isolation and let out only for short periods of individual recreation or visitation with friends or relatives. Reformed death row facilities allow their inmates to work and have recreational time with other death row inmates. Mainstream death rows occur only in the Missouri state prison system, where inmates are housed with the general prison population. They are given the same work, recreation, and counseling opportunities as other maximum security prisoners.
Parole is the process of releasing inmates from prison to serve the remainder of their sentence in a community. The decision to parole an inmate is made by a parole board after considering information about inmates and their record during incarceration. Parolees are supervised by parole officers. Parole is often used to control prison overcrowding, to reward good behavior, and to help prisoners reenter their community with supervision. In 2002 out of a total estimated correctional population of 6,732,400, the number of adults on parole was 753,141. The 2002 rate of adults on parole in the United States was 350 for each 100,000 persons.
Parole boards generally hold parole release hearings at the prison. Prison officials participate in the interviews, and in many states the inmates and their relatives or friends may also play a role in the parole process. Most parole boards also allow a written statement from the victim. Information from police and any opposition to an inmate's release are also considered. Some parole boards make their decisions only from written reports. An inmate's personal information such as age, prior criminal record, prison record, and most importantly the amount of time already served are factors related to the board's decision.
After being paroled, offenders are assigned a parole officer who sets up the conditions for the parole agreement. Much like probation, parole requirements often include counseling or drug therapy programs, getting a job, restricted travel or changes of address, a ban on owning or possessing weapons. Failure to meet parole terms or further criminal activity will send the offender back to prison.
Community-based correction programs began in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The programs offer an alternative to incarceration within the prison system. Many criminologists believed a significant number of offenders did not need incarcerationPage 316 | Top of Article in high security prison cells. Some inmates, who might otherwise have been ready to turn away from a life of crime, instead became like the hardened criminals they associated with in prison.
In response, states, counties, and cities established local correctional facilities and programs that became known as community-based corrections. These facilities, located in neighborhoods, allowed offenders normal family relationships and friendships as well as rehabilitation services such as counseling, instruction in basic living skills, how to apply for jobs, and work training and placement.
Some offenders are placed in community-based corrections without ever going to jail or prison. Others are assigned to these correction programs after serving part of their prison sentence to learn how to rejoin community life. These programs include strict supervision, house arrest and electronicPage 317 | Top of Article monitoring, halfway houses, boot camp prisons, and work-release programs.
The popularity and growth of community-based programs nationwide is based on five factors: (1) the programs provide closer supervision than regular probation sentences; (2) major cost savings compared to full incarceration; (3) flexibility for judges to sentence to community correction programs instead of incarceration in a jail or prison; (4) a more gradual reentry into community life after prison or jail time; and, (5) less overcrowding in jails and prisons.
Intensive probation supervision
Intensive Probation Supervision (IPS) is the most frequently used community-based corrections program. It is an intermediate program with more supervision than with ordinary probation but does not lock an offender up in a jail orPage 318 | Top of Article prison. It gives judges another option besides the often too light probation sentence or too harsh prison sentence. IPS relieves prison overcrowding, saves taxpayer dollars, protects the community better than usual probation due to closer supervision, and provides rehabilitation services to offenders within normal community surroundings.
Offenders are evaluated to determine their risk to the community and an individualized IPS program is developed. Offenders convicted of violent offenses or those with long criminal histories usually do not qualify for IPS and are incarcerated. Individual IPS programs combine a variety of community-based correction programs including house arrest, electronic monitoring, strict curfews, drug counseling and drug testing, employment or preparation for employment, community service, and strict adherence to meeting with an assigned IPS officer.
Unlike probation officers who may have a caseload of several hundred offenders, each of which can be met with only once a month, IPS officers try to keep small caseloads of approximately twenty offenders. They meet once a week for intensive sessions. Offenders just starting in IPS may meet once or twice daily with their IPS officer. Some offenders are placed in IPS without ever being incarcerated while others are released into IPS programs after serving their minimum sentence time in prison.
House arrest and electronic monitoring
House arrest involves court-ordered confinement in an offender's home. House arrest relieves prison overcrowding and allows the offender to stay connected to familiar surroundings, family, and friends. House arrest is maintained at several different levels depending on an offender's individual program. Curfew is the lightest form of house arrest; under curfew offenders are confined to their house only certain hours of the evening or at night. Home detention means offenders must remain at home except for time at employment, school, medical appointments, or religious services. Home incarceration confines the offender to home at all times except for court-ordered counseling or treatment.
Electronic monitoring (EM) is commonly used along with home detention or incarceration. As electronic surveillance
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technology improves so does electronic monitoring; EM devices are active, passive, or use global tracking. An active EM system makes use of a small transmitter strapped to an offender, which constantly emits a signal to a receiver-dialer placed on the offender's telephone. Should the offender move too far from the receiver-dialer the signal is interrupted and a central monitoring computer is notified.
Passive EM involves a device strapped to offenders and their phones, but a constant signal is not emitted between them. Instead, IPS officers periodically call the specially designed phones and offenders must make voice contact and insert their tracking device into the phone itself to verify their whereabouts. Global tracking or Global Positioning Systems (GPS) make use of U.S. government-owned satellites. Offenders wear a transmitter that emits a constant signal to a satellite; their exact location can be checked at any time by IPS officers.
Halfway houses, renamed Community Residential Treatment Centers, are rigidly controlled rehabilitation homes for offenders. Relieving prison overcrowding, the centers house inmates who have been released early from prison or are on parole. Their services vary widely from a full range of counseling, treatment, and education programs to no direct services, only a place to live under supervision. The centers can host a few residents or several hundred. Residents are generally allowed to leave unsupervised each day for specific hours for work, school, or treatment programs.
Residential centers provide a practical solution to the public's demand for criminals to remain in prison longer despite a shortage of prison and jail space. By the year 2000, keeping an offender at a residential center cost must less than in a prison. Residential Treatment Centers are considered similar to minimum security prisons.
Work release programs
Work release programs, also known as furlough, day parole, and day release programs, allow selected inmates release from a prison or community residential center for work during the day. The Department of Justice estimates 40 percent of released prison inmates are returned to prison for new convictions within three years. A major reason is the lack of employment opportunities for ex-prisoners. In work release programs, inmates can learn skills needed for employment and put those skills to use in jobs before their release from prison. The goal of work release is to give released prisoners a smoother transition back into their communities, in hopes they will be less likely to return to criminal behavior.
Inmates selected for work release are those least likely to commit further crimes while in the community. They must have served the majority of their sentences, be on minimum-security status, and their conviction cannot be for murder or rape. The number of offenders actually placed in work release is very small, about 3 percent of incarcerated individuals. Few employers are willing to accept offenders for training, and most communities continue to view work release offenders as dangerous. Although work release offenders rarely cause problems, a few highly publicized escapes and violent incidents keep public opinion unfavorable.
For More Information
Beck, Allen, and Paige Harrison. Prisoners in 2001. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2001.
Schiraldi, Vincent, and Jason Ziedenberg. America's One Million NonViolent Prisoners. Washington, DC: Justice Policy Institute, 1999.
Siegel, Larry J. Criminology: The Core. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002.
Silverman, Ira. Corrections: A Comprehensive View. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001.
U.S. Department of Justice. A Profile of Female Offenders. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Prisons, 1998.
"Correction." U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Criminal Justice Reference Service. http://virlib.ncjrs.org/Corrections.asp (accessed August 20, 2004).
"Corrections Connection." The Official Home of Corrections. http://www.corrections.com (accessed on August 20, 2004).
U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections (NIC). http://www.nicic.org (accessed on August 20, 2004).