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Editors: Richard C. Hanes , Sharon M. Hanes , Sarah Hermsen , and Kelly Rudd
Date: 2005
Crime and Punishment in America Reference Library
From: Crime and Punishment in America Reference Library(Vol. 2: Almanac, Volume 2. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 18
Content Level: (Level 4)

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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 Page 305  |  Top of Article
Entrance to the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California. The prison was the site of a 2000 state hearing over inadequate medical treatment for women inmates in California prisons. (AP/Wide World Photos) Entrance to the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California. The prison was the site of a 2000 state hearing over inadequate medical treatment for women inmates in California prisons. (AP/Wide World Photos) 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 Page 307  |  Top of Article
Rich Crawford, North Dakota chief federal probation officer. Probation is the most common form of correctional punishment for criminal activity, allowing an offender to stay within the community under the supervision of a probation officer. (AP Rich Crawford, North Dakota chief federal probation officer. Probation is the most common form of correctional punishment for criminal activity, allowing an offender to stay within the community under the supervision of a probation officer. (AP/Wide World Photos)

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.

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Famous Prisons

Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. Located fifteen miles north of Kansas City in Leavenworth, Kansas, it began accepting inmates in 1903. Leavenworth was the first federal penitentiary. During its century of use, Leavenworth has housed such famous outlaws as "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert F. Stroud, who later became known as the "Bird Man of Alcatraz" where he was later moved.

Alcatraz, meaning pelican, is located on an island in San Francisco Bay. It was the first permanent U.S. Army military fort on the West Coast beginning in the early 1850s, then became a military prison in the early 1860s. In 1933 and 1934 it was transformed into a prison for the nation's most dangerous criminals. Alcatraz, also known as the Rock, was essentially escape-proof because it was surrounded by shark-infested waters. Alcatraz operated until 1963 when it was closed. In 2000 it became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and a major tourist attraction.

San Quentin State Prison, located in Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco, is California's oldest prison. Pris-oners finished building San Quentin in 1854. They were housed offshore on a boat while constructing the prison. In 1893 it became California's execution site. Hanging was the standard means for execution until 1938 when the gas chamber came into use. Although a maximum security prison for over one hundred years, by 2000 San Quentin was serving as a medium security facility for six thousand inmates.

Sing Sing Correctional Facility is a state prison located in Ossining, New York, and took its name from that village. Built in 1825, Sing Sing became known for executing death row prisoners by electrocution. Between 1914 and 1971 all of the state of New York's executions took place in the prison's electric chair. Sing Sing remained a maximum security facility for male offenders.

Attica Correctional Facility, a state prison located in Attica, New York, has held many of New York's worst criminals since it opened in 1933. It is best known for a bloody prison riot in 1971 that resulted in forty-two deaths—thirty-one inmates and eleven prison guards. It is the only U.S. prison that uses a tear gas system piped throughout the facility to quiet conflicts. Attica holds many criminals who have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms—often twenty-five years to life—for committing murder.


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.

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Boot Camp Prisons

Boot camp prisons, often referred to as shock incarceration camps, provide intense short-term (from 90 to 120 days) incarceration for young, generally nonviolent, offenders. Just as the name "boot camp" implies, the centers employ strict military drills, discipline, and require hard physical labor. They also provide special education, counseling, and drug treatment. Boot camps are another type of alternative incarceration relieving prison overcrowding. Their effectiveness in deterring repeat offenders was still under study at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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 Page 311  |  Top of Article
President George W. Bush outlining his new battle plan in the War on Drugs, 2002. (AP/Wide World Photos) President George W. Bush outlining his new battle plan in the "War on Drugs," 2002. (AP/Wide World Photos)
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.

Prison construction

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

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.

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New Treatment: Prisoners and Animals

Animal assisted therapy (AAT) involves using highly trained animals to help promote emotional, physical, and mental well-being. In a prison, using animals can be very helpful, especially to inmates who have never experienced the unconditional love of a pet. Incarceration can be a very stressful time for inmates given the fear of attack from other inmates, detachment from friends and family, and guilt for not providing for their children. The animals used in AAT receive special training to function in an institutional setting. Many inmates who have been through AAT respond very positively, finding the animals provide a safe outlet for their emotions. Studies have shown that prisoners who go through AAT are often calmer, more relaxed, and get along better with their fellow inmates.

Aside from therapy animals, some animal shelters have begun allowing inmates to work with orphaned pets. Carefully chosen inmates take care of a specific pet, including brushing, cleaning, and training the animal. Prisoners are given the opportunity to care for a pet, and the animals begin to trust humans again so that they may be adopted into a loving home.

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 Page 313  |  Top of Article
Death row inmates, or those who have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution, play basketball in San Quentin Prison. (AP/Wide World Photos) Death row inmates, or those who have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution, play basketball in San Quentin Prison. (AP/Wide World Photos)
good behavior, some prisoners spend their entire sentence in supermax.

Death row

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.

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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.

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The decision to parole an inmate is made by a parole board after considering information about an inmate and his or her record during incarceration. (AP/Wide World Photos) The decision to parole an inmate is made by a parole board after considering information about an inmate and his or her record during incarceration. (AP/Wide World Photos)

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 corrections

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.

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Women in Prison

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the fastest growing group in prison and jail population was women. According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 91,612 women in state and federal prisons at the end of 2000, or 6.6 percent of the nation's total prison population. Ten times that many or about 900,000 were on probation or parole. Back in 1970 there were just 5,600 incarcerated women, 12,300 in 1980, and in 1990 approximately 40,000. From 1990 until the end of 2000 the number of imprisoned women grew by 125 percent.

Eighty-five percent of women prisoners committed nonviolent crimes, mostly drug offenses and theft. The astounding increase in the number of incarcerated women in the 1990s was largely due to drug arrests. In the early 1980s federal and state governments initiated a "War on Drugs," in reaction to a huge increase in drug related offenses throughout the United States.

Most incarcerated women are poor, undereducated, and women of color. Black American women are three times more likely to be in jail or prison than Hispanic women, and six times more likely than white women. Most female inmates are young (between twenty-four and twenty-nine years of age); raised in a single parent home; experienced violence or sexual abuse at home; started using drugs in their early teens; and were unemployed or in a low paying job at the
Former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding performing community service work after serving three days in jail on a disorderly conduct charge. (AP/Wide World Photos) Former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding performing community service work after serving three days in jail on a disorderly conduct charge. (AP/Wide World Photos) time of their arrest. Eighty percent are mothers leaving approximately 250,000 children under eighteen years of age to the care of others.

Most women in prison do not receive proper healthcare or drug treatment and are often sexually abused or assaulted by male corrections officers. Medical care in a system designed primarily for men does not provide the kinds of testing, treatment, and medication needed by women and often leaves them with recurring health problems. Most women sentenced for drug crimes do not receive drug treatment therapy while incarcerated, and once released they are unable to receive federal assistance such as food stamps and student loans because of their drug convictions. Roughly 80 percent of female drug users released after serving time will return to prison on new convictions.

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 Page 319  |  Top of Article
Lakeview NeuroRehabilitation Centers halfway house in New Hampshire. Halfway houses are rigidly controlled rehabilitation homes for inmates who have been released early from prison or are on parole. (AP/Wide World Photos) Lakeview NeuroRehabilitation Center's halfway house in New Hampshire. Halfway houses are rigidly controlled rehabilitation homes for inmates who have been released early from prison or are on parole. (AP/Wide World Photos)
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.

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Halfway houses

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.

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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.

Web Sites

"Correction." U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Criminal Justice Reference Service. (accessed August 20, 2004).

"Corrections Connection." The Official Home of Corrections. (accessed on August 20, 2004).

U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections (NIC). (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3441000037