The United States criminal justice system has recently become subject to fierce criticism. Recent events, such as the widespread incidents of police brutality, have drawn a lot of attention towards the issue of criminal law enforcement and exposed the deficiencies and shortfalls of the criminal justice system. Liberal politicians have long been critical of how criminal justice is administered in the United States, but now conservative politicians have also come to acknowledge the inefficiency of the current system. With the bipartisan agreement in the US Congress, there is hope for a comprehensive reform that is long overdue.
Criminal justice administration refers to the set of policies and resource management practices that define how crime-committing individuals are treated in the society (Source 4). The US policy approach has been largely formulated in the late 1960s and 1970s under the predominantly Republican government. Not only was the number of crimes on the rise, but the public was also aware of them like never before. Changing media channels and strategies publicly exposed the most violent crimes and thus agitated the public. The citizens of the United States were becoming less and less tolerant of criminals, and the most popular method for fighting crimes became the so-called “get tough” approach (Source 5, p.40). The common understanding was that criminals choose the lifestyle they lead and thus they deserve to fully face the consequences of their actions, regardless of the specific context. While the origins of this approach are understandable, its results were largely unforeseen. “Get tough” approach, with its non-discriminating and inflexible view on crime, resulted in an oversimplification of the intricate concept that crime is and thus undermined the legitimacy of the concept of justice in the United States. The subsequent legislation such as the three strikes laws or the mandatory minimum requirements resulted in a peculiar application of the law, with people receiving unjustifiably long sentences for relatively minor transgressions.
Among the problematic criminal justice policies are the mandatory minimum sentences, particularly in relation to possession or distribution of drugs. Since the US judicial system operates under the Common Law system, judges have a certain degree of discretion in their decision making. The mandatory minimum sentences thus reduce the extent of judicial discretion in order to ensure that some crimes are punished by a certain number of years in prison (Source 1). The mandatory minimum sentences provisions were first introduced in 1951; however, it was over the course of the War on Drugs that they became truly problematic. There have been cases of non-violent drug offenders receiving life sentences without the possibility of parole for possessing minuscule amounts of drugs, which has contributed to the problem of mass incarceration in the United States. Even when the mandatory minimum requirements are reviewed and amended in some state legislations, these changes do not apply retrospectively to those already convicted under these requirements. To make things even more absurd, some of the drug offenders are currently serving their sentences for possession or distribution of marijuana – a substance whose recreational consumption has been recently legalized in a number of states. Incidents like this indicate just how out of date the concept of mandatory minimum sentences is.
Another problematic punitive justice policy is the three strikes laws currently implemented in about half of the US states. These laws require that those who have committed two prior serious offenses get a considerably longer sentence on their “third strike” (Source 5). Policies like mandatory minimum sentences and three strikes laws demonstrate the commitment of the US legal system to the crime control model at the expense of the due process model (Source 2, p. 14). The former model values speed and efficiency above everything else: the system is performing well if it is capable of apprehending and convicting as many offenders as possible. The due process model emphasizes the importance of everyone receiving a fair trial based on carefully examined information, all while being represented by a qualified defender. For too long, the American criminal justice system has been dominated by the crime control model that only resulted in mass incarceration and large economic strains on the state and federal budgets. Currently, America is the leading country in terms of the number of its imprisoned citizens, outperforming illiberal regimes like Russia and China (Source 6). Because of the exploding incarceration rates, some states spend more of their budget on prison maintenance rather than education. Besides, the criminal justice system in its current state disproportionally affects the minority populations of the United States, namely African Americans, who represent 40% of all inmates and only 10% of the total population (Source 6). As the bail system disproportionally favors those who can afford it, American prisons are filled with those who may have committed a minor offense (such as driving with a suspended license) but who are too poor – or too ill – to afford bail (Source 7). Questions are being duly raised whether the system is meant to deliver justice – or whether it is merely another policy furthering the socioeconomic cleavages in the country.
Finally, as if the imprisonment was not already difficult enough, prisoner re-entry has been also made unduly challenging, as some states make former prisoners subject to the so-called “collateral consequences.” These penalties vary from prisoner disenfranchisement (the loss of voting rights) to inability to receive an education loan or get a job. As Chin duly notices, having a criminal record represents the modern form of civil death when individuals lose their civil rights – comparable to the barbaric practice of outlawry (Source 3). The criminal justice system has been criticized for not putting enough effort into prisoner rehabilitation to help former inmates make a successful transition back into the community as law-abiding citizens. Not enough resources are currently committed for prison education and job training, and former inmates come out of the prison unprepared to live in the society (Source 4, p. 427). Being stripped of education and employment opportunities (and, in some cases, deprived of public housing), many of them have no choice but to return to crime. Thus, the criminal justice system has been blamed for creating a permanent underclass, especially since drug-related sentences often affect young people who have not yet had access to education and thus their chances of success later in life are greatly reduced.
Criminal justice administration is a complex enough problem to puzzle policy-makers, striving to both prevent crime and to maintain justice in the society, on its own. Decades of inadequate governance only exacerbated the problem, as currently the system is overburdened with costly mass incarceration, disadvantaging the vulnerable members of the society and creating a permanent underclass because of insufficient rehabilitation efforts. A major policy overhaul is long overdue: it is time to acknowledge that the “tough-on-crime” approach, however promising it sounds in populist rhetoric, is not working and instead turn to the due process approach to criminal justice.