Punishment

When a person is arrested and convicted of a crime, depending on the nature and seriousness of the offense, he or she may be fined, placed on probation, or incarcerated. Teenagers and older adults are much less likely than young and middle-aged adults to be incarcerated for the same crime. However, the conservative political and social climate of recent years has prompted less forgiveness on the part of the courts, not only for violent crimes but also for drug abuse violations and "victimless crimes."

Both the numbers of prisoners in federal and state prisons and county jails and the lengths of sentences have increased in recent decades. But due to the scarcity of prison space, convicted felons are often released earlier than they might otherwise have been. For those who are forced to remain in prison for extended periods of time, the experience is less likely to promote rehabilitation than it is to serve as a crime school. In addition, the youth-oriented culture of violence in most prisons, a culture characterized by impulsive action, physical courage, challenging rituals, and physical strength, provides little chance for older prisoners who might wish to reform (Sykes, 1958). The prison mentality is focused on conning, coolness, and conformity, and, in general, being able to do "hard time" without breaking.

Sociopolitical efforts to deal with crime in the United States have focused primarily on deterrent measures such as increasing the number of prisons and police rather than on retraining and rehabilitation of inmates or on crime-prevention measures. Still, the results of a recent General Social Survey (Davis & Smith, 1994) found that nearly 85% of the American public feel that the courts are too lenient in dealing with convicted criminals. Over one-third of the respondents in this survey also believed that too little is being spent to halt the rising crime rate and in law enforcement.

The question remains as to how long society will be willing to continue spending the billions of dollars required to keep more than 1.5 million Americans isolated, housed, clothed, fed, and otherwise occupied for years on end. This question becomes especially important when one realizes that it is the mainly white majority that is paying for the prisons that are protecting them from the increasing numbers of minority-group prisoners. For example, it is projected that, by the year 2050, one-fourth of the population of the United States will consist of Hispanics, who are also the fastest growing minority group in our prisons. Still, in the case of capital offenses, it costs less to keep the guilty parties in prison for the rest of their lives than to pay attorneys' and court fees required by the endless appeals involved in capital punishment sentences.

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