The U.S. Penal System and Alternative Correctional Programs

In every society worldwide, agencies exist which are tasked with the provision of correctional services and administering justice by managing individuals convicted by courts. In the United States, the corrections system is a branch of the criminal justice system which ensures that criminals’ sentences are carried out properly and timely. As of 2018, the size of the prison population in the United States surpassed six million people, including those held in jails, prisons, and individuals who were on parole (Maruschak & Minton, 2020). Such a large number of convicted perpetrators requires substantial resources and manpower in order to perform all the necessary procedures. As a result, the correctional system employs thousands of workers and manages hundreds of facilities on different levels, including state and federal ones. Contrary to common belief, the majority of offenders do not serve their sentences in prisons and jails but spend their time on probation instead (Maruschak & Minton, 2020). Thus, in the United States, numerous programs exist which are alternatives to incarceration and involve other ways of administering justice, including drug treatment programs, intensive supervisory probation, and day reporting centers.

Before describing the existing programs for perpetrators, it is necessary to identify the basic mechanisms and aspects of the correctional system in the United States. The corrections system is part of the executive branch of the American government, yet, the criminal justice system is influenced by all three branches. Courts perform the judicial obligations and determine sentences for offenders while the corrections system enforces the punishment, supervision, as well as treatment of convicts and suspects who committed crimes or delinquencies (Krisberg et al., 2019). Essentially, the criminal justice system is governed by the principle of separation of powers which is effective and fair. The American correctional system is not one body; instead, it consists of fifty separate state systems and includes hundreds of agencies at a local level (Krisberg et al., 2019). Such an arrangement reflects the fact that states impose their own laws and regulations, which translates into differences in the work of local corrections systems. As a result, the American correctional system has numerous stakeholders, including elected officials, law enforcement, and courts. Each of them can influence the terms on which supervision and treatment of offenders are administered.

The correctional system employs multiple ways of supervising and managing individuals who were convicted of crimes, yet the most well-known method is imprisonment. The main idea behind the action of putting a person in jail or prison is incapacitation which constitutes a method of crime prevention through the removal of an individual from society (Krisberg et al., 2019). Jails are the institution where people usually serve short-term sentences for minor misdemeanors or await their trial or sentencing. Individuals who violated the terms of their probation or parole, for instance, by escaping into another state without any notification, are also held in jails. There are also cases with specific groups of people who are always placed in jail. For example, juveniles who committed a crime tend to await their transfer to the appropriate agencies in jails. Similarly, people with proven mental-health issues are put into jail temporarily in order to transfer to mental health facilities in the future. As a result, the jail population is constantly changing since people tend to stay there only for a short period of time, awaiting further developments or serving a short-term sentence.

Prisons are the next step after jails in the correctional system because people who go there tend to have longer sentences and often may spend the rest of their life in such facilities. Prisons are only run by states or federally and house offenders with a sentence of more than twelve months. Subsequently, the population turnover in prisons is much slower than that in jails since people stay there for longer periods. Federal prisons house individuals who commit crimes that violate federal laws; these include bank robberies, drug trafficking across borders of states, mail fraud, tax evasion, and other types of offenses (Krisberg et al., 2019). State prisons are subject to the regulations of local governments and usually house people who violate the laws of the state. All prisons have strict security measures in places such as tall concrete walls and barbed wire around the perimeter to prevent escapes, and the staff is equipped with appropriate means of managing the behavior of inmates. Nevertheless, generally, prisons can be divided into the minimum, medium, and maximum-security ones, which demonstrates that the U.S. corrections system differentiates perpetrators according to the severity of their crimes.

It is clear that incarceration is not the only option that the U.S. corrections system can provide, and there are alternative ways to rehabilitate offenders, one of them being drug treatment programs. Despite the fact that drug treatment is available on many occasions, its subjects are often criminals who undergo it while being in prison. Nevertheless, there are programs that are conducted outside of facilities and only involve community supervision by trained officers. Research demonstrates that pharmacotherapy is an effective way of reducing the incidence of illicit opioid use and criminal behavior among individuals convicted of drug-related and other types of offenses (Schwartz et al., 2018). Drug treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration are available for people who are granted probation or parole. Such treatments are offered across the United States in different parts of the country and the primary agencies tasked with conducting them are community corrections bodies. Essentially, the process involves supervision on the part of an officer who has to ensure that the convicted individual consistently undergoes their treatment by visiting the local corrections office.

Another form of incarceration alternative is intensive supervisory probation which once again involves community corrections agencies. Intensive supervision is often employed as a solution to the problem of overcrowding in prisons and therefore implies stringent control over the individual. Intensive supervision has many different iterations but generally relies on the increased number of office visits, drug testing done frequently, and a zero-tolerance policy even towards minor offenses and misdemeanors (Hyatt & Barnes, 2016). Thus, offenders who have a chance to enter an intensive supervision program still must be careful not to violate the conditions of their probation. Otherwise, the lack of efforts on the part of the supervised criminal may lead to their incarceration and inability to receive a chance for probation in the future. Nevertheless, research is unclear on the effects of intensive supervision programs; there is only one study conducted in Michigan that showed a significant drop in recidivism (DeVall et al., 2017). Therefore, intensive supervision programs should be studied more thoroughly in order to determine their effectiveness.

Probation is also often granted to people who commit crime for the first time and to younger people whom courts often view as being able to rehabilitate themselves. In these cases, youth are usually given a chance to enter aftercare programs which theoretically must assist them in reducing the desire to commit crimes. There is once again a variety of types of aftercare programs, but the most common ones include skills training and counseling, which recently substituted the juvenile boot camps, which did deliver any effects (Bouchard & Wong, 2017). Essentially, young people who enter aftercare programs have to not only report their whereabouts on a daily basis but also engage in different activities, which theoretically must help them adapt to living in a community. Research shows that there is evidence both in support and against the use of aftercare programs. In other words, in certain cases, aftercare programs were effective in reducing the rate of recidivism among the youth, while in other ones, they did not have a positive effect (Bouchard & Wong, 2017). Thus, aftercare programs remain a practice that still requires more evidence to determine whether it has to continue being implemented.

The corrections system in the United States also manages residential reentry centers, which were developed as an alternative to prisons for offenders who received probation or parole. Essentially, such institutions constitute homes where inmates are supervised by staff and can leave them only after completing an authorization procedure. The staff working in such centers are tasked with not only monitoring the conduct of offenders but also providing them with services such as counseling and employment assistance. Criminals living in residential reentry centers can get a job at local enterprises, and the staff members help them to write resumes or give them training classes. Inmates who experience problems with drug addiction can also undergo treatment in the center and receive appropriate counseling. Residential reentry centers’ aim is to help inmates return to normal life after prison or rehabilitate themselves without even going to one. Studies show that residential reentry centers demonstrate considerable effectiveness in terms of recidivism reduction (Powers et al., 2019). As a result, programs with such centers are used extensively in different states and parts of the country.

Another alternative program employed by the U.S. correctional system with an intention to solve the issue of prison overcrowding is electronically monitored home confinement. Such a program requires a convicted offender to spend a portion of the day in their place of residence. Moreover, to ensure that the person stays within the limits of their house or apartment, they have to wear an electronic device capable of showing their exact location. As soon as the device leaves the pre-determined premises, it will notify the supervising officer, who will have to take appropriate actions. Not all criminals can be given a chance to enter the program, and it is usually available only to non-violent offenders. The program help achieve the same effect as incarceration due to constant psychological pressure for the offender. In other words, a person who wears an ankle bracelet that detects their movement will try to be careful not to violate the terms of their probation. Electronically monitored home confinement is a procedure which extremely common across all states since it does not require any substantial funding and can yield positive results.

Community services are also a popular alternative to incarceration administered by the American correctional system, and it is often used as a substitution for restitution. Community service usually requires offenders to perform unpaid work for the benefit of the community and which must last for a certain period of time. The court determines the number of hours which a criminal has to work for free on a project given to them, and their corrections officer must check on them. Moreover, the corrections officer may not grant their assurance if the work done by the offender is not satisfactory. The assignment provided to the person entering community service programs must be in line with their occupation and skills to ensure that the quality of their labor is appropriate. For instance, construction contractors who were convicted of committing fraud in the workplace may be required to build homes for the most vulnerable members of the community (Krisberg et al., 2019). Community service also may be granted in cases when a person is unable to pay their restitution, and therefore, they may be ordered to work instead to repay their debts.

The next type of alternative to incarceration is the civil commitment which is ordered by the courts in cases of sexual assault. Civil commitment is imposed on violent sexual offenders who, according to the procedure, may be sent to specialized facilities for the rest of their life or until they show signs of recovery. In the United States, the practice of civil commitment is used only in 19 states (Clear et al., 2019). In the majority of cases, civil commitment implies prison-like conditions, with the exception that in the case of sex offenders, they are provided with treatment for their mental health problems. The issue of sexual assaults is a topical one and among the most controversial because numerous studies exist which show that sex offenders are not likely to be arrested for sex crimes (Clear et al., 2019). Thus, some sex offenders can be provided with appropriate counseling, which can help them stop committing such crimes. Nevertheless, people subject to civil commitment are usually violent criminals who were found to commit similar sex offenses on several occasions.

Sex offenders are often people with considerable mental health issues but there are also other types of criminals facing the same problems who cannot be placed in a standard prison setting. Therefore, state agencies that are part of the American correctional system design their own programs for the treatment and management of convicts with mental health issues. In some cases, there are even people with a severely handicapped mental capacity who cannot control themselves. As a result, many states introduced day reporting and treatment centers where staff utilizes different correctional methods to assist people with mental health problems. In such facilities, offenders must receive treatment and report their whereabouts to ensure that the supervision officers are always in control of the situation with the individual. Day reporting centers are also used as means to reduce the size of the prison population without the negative effects of a mass release of criminals. Thus, offenders with mental health problems do not have to suffer in prisons where they may be abused by other inmates and can receive proper treatment instead.

Finally, one of the most innovative alternatives to incarceration used today is restorative justice which already been tested on numerous occasions across the country. The restorative justice process involves three parties, namely, the offender, the victim, and the community. The offender must recognize their offense and express their willingness to abide by the law from now on. The victim has to determine which resources the offender will have to provide to them to restore justice. While the community facilitates the procedure by reminding the offender of the proper rules of conduct and providing them with opportunities to resolve the issue and assists the victim. Research demonstrates that restorative justice programs deliver positive results in terms of the reduction of recidivism, especially in cases of property offenders (Clear et al., 2019). Restorative justice may involve a variety of programs, from mediation sessions between offenders and victims to community service. Essentially, the ultimate program depends on the harm inflicted on the victim and their idea of appropriate retribution.

The correctional system is an essential part of the criminal justice system in the United States since it imposes punishments on offenders and manages them before and throughout their sentence. Imprisonment is the most popular way of treating individuals convicted of crimes, yet it is not the most common one since the majority of all criminals are given probation. Jails and prisons are the primary correction facilities that house individuals suspected or convicted of offenses. Nevertheless, there are other alternatives to imprisonment, including drug treatment programs that involve an offender being provided with a chance to give up their addiction and not go to prison. Intensive supervisory probation is another form of imprisonment alternative which implies a person reporting on their daily activities to the local corrections office. Day reporting centers work in the same fashion, but they usually imply less stringent rules and provide treatment to offenders with mental health problems. The current correctional system in the United States has various programs for offenders and provides them with ample opportunities to reenter society.


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