The penal system in the United States of America, as is elsewhere in the world is far from the best solution for curbing anti-social tendencies among citizens. As it is, the penal system is synonymous with imprisonment and social seclusion, both of them conditions that don’t encourage positive transformations for the imprisoned individuals. Seen in this context, reforming the penal system should be a priority for policy makers and elected representatives. The following passages will articulate some key changes to the penal system that would help mitigate some of the drawbacks of the prevailing situation.
An area that needs expedient redress is the amount of time consumed for solving criminal cases. The adage ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is still quite valid and the judiciary must see to it that the distressed caused to innocent defendants is kept to a minimum. Recent surveys have also indicated that those individuals involved in law trials are poorly informed about their own rights during this period. For example, even those alleged of most heinous crimes have a right to legal counsel and are subject to due process. In the absence of such knowledge, they tend to act in desperation and get into further legal entanglements. A general awareness program for the general population, with special focus on groups and communities susceptible to crime should be the way forward (Hickey, 2007).
The prevailing system of punishment imposed on criminals does not give importance to behavior modification and corrective education which would ease their subsequent integration into civil society. A case in point is the substitution of solitary prison confinement with community service hours. This measure has already seen some implementation, especially in pronouncements pertaining to juvenile misconduct. Given its success with juveniles, it’s should now be broadened to include all guilty.
However much politicians want to deny discrimination and prejudice entrenched within the penal system, there is strong evidence suggesting that the legal system is indifferent to the grievances of minority communities if not being outright biased against them. A well studied issue of contention is the disproportionate number of African Americans being imprisoned every year. While the community’s involvement in drug trafficking is the official reason being forwarded, it is as much a ‘war on poor Blacks’ as it is a ‘war on drugs’. Admittedly, this is not in the domain of penal reform but on the broader agenda of social reform and social justice (Hickey, 2007).
Finally, the penal system needs to incorporate psychological perspectives in their methods for delivering justice. Those offenders with a history of mental illness need be given proper psychiatric attention, for bringing a semblance of normalcy to their mental health will significantly contribute toward changing their anti-social behavior patterns. This fact is also acknowledged by the Prison Reform Trust, an independent organization that serves as an advocacy group for penal system reform: “A new approach to dealing with mentally ill offenders and those with learning disabilities could prevent this vulnerable group being caught in the revolving door of the criminal justice system. It could cut crime, improve health, reduce police and court workloads and free up prison places for serious and violent offenders”. (www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/, 2009)
Thomas J. Hickey, Taking sides: Clashing views in Crime and Criminology, Eighth Edition, Published by McGraw-Hill & Co, 2007.
Prison Reform Trust, Bradley Review calls for a New Approach to Dealing with Mentally Ill Offenders and those with Learning Disabilities, retrieved from <(http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/> on 26th May, 2009.