How Might Corrections Change to Be More Humane in the Next Decade
Twenty-five percent of the world's people who are incarcerated reside in the United States, even though only five percent of the global population resides here - it is clear that institutional change is long overdue.
The United States of America has a massive carceral problem. Even when adjusting for factors such as economic status, social service spending, and crime victimization, the United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than other countries. Twenty-five percent of the world's people who are incarcerated reside in the United States, even though only five percent of the global population resides here. The history that led to this is complex. (In brief: crime rose during the 1970s, leading to increasingly rigid and invasive policing measures in many communities. While nationwide crime has since declined, data does not support the idea that the new policing tactics had a significant impact within any community. The only impact of any significance is that more people are incarcerated.) Between the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and the Covid-19 pandemic, it is clear that institutional change is long overdue.
The goal of the criminal justice system as a whole must be to deliver justice to the communities it serves. The correctional system is a key part of that goal, focused on dealing with individuals who have been convicted of a crime. The way our corrections system operates right now is massively unequal. People of color, particularly of black and Hispanic descent, are overrepresented. Members of the LGBTQ+ community are overrepresented, particularly in juvenile detention. People who experience poverty, disability (mental and physical), and addictions are all overrepresented. This is antithetical to the goal of criminal justice because justice cannot exist when specific communities are disproportionately targeted. In order to achieve true justice, institutional barriers that create sources of inequality have to be removed altogether. This will take a lot of hard work from a lot of institutions--perhaps daunting, but vital work.
This work is already beginning. The state of corrections in the US is already somewhat improving. The overall incarceration rate in the US has declined over the past twenty years--a trend that is currently not well-understood and is in need of further study--although the unequal demographic gaps will not close based on current trends. (As one expert put it, the situation is "less horrible.") The advocacy efforts of protesters over the past years--2020 especially--have moved topics such as prison abolition from fringe conversations to the mainstream and centered those most vulnerable to abuse in the correctional system in these conversations. And make no mistake, it is important that people in the correctional system have the space to speak.
People who are incarcerated are fundamentally people. Regardless of what choices they have made (including whether they have hurt other people), they are still irrevocably human. They deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Including people who did, in fact, commit the crimes they were incarcerated for. This is not inherently easy to do. People currently incarcerated struggle to get their voices out. Yet many still do, and I highly encourage you to follow some of the links on this article to their stories, opinions, and thoughts on reform. By centering the voices of those within the correctional system, changes can be made to bring greater humanity and equality to corrections.