A minimum sentencing. These laws together insured that

A significant
social issue in the United States is mass incarceration. “our rate of
incarceration is more than five times higher than most of the countries in the
world”, which makes the United States the world
leader in imprisonment. (Wagner &
Walsh, 2016). There was an “estimated total of 357,292 inmates in
prisons and jails in 1970; this ballooned to a total of 2,267,787 in 2004”
(Reitz, 2006, p. 1787). The reason for this dramatic increase is largely due to
policies that have been implemented over the years to try to reduce the crime
rate.

Some policies that
have caused this exponentially growing social issue include the declared “war
on drugs”, the Sentencing Reform Act, The Violent Crime Control and Law
Enforcement Act, and the passing the of the “three strikes” law. In 1982,
President Regan declared a “war on drugs”, which aggressively enforced drug
laws that were previously under-enforced and, in 1984, The Sentencing Reform
Act expanded the use of mandatory minimum sentencing. These laws together
insured that Drug offenders faced lifetime consequences for minor
infractions. Ten years later, in 1994, The Violent Crime Control and Law
Enforcement Act pushed truth-in-sentencing laws on the states and a “three
strikes” law was passed insuring mandatory life sentences for repeat offenders.
These laws were more punitive rather than rehabilitative or preventative, which
caused a dramatic increase in the United States incarceration rate. (Konczal
& Covert, 2014, p. 5). This increase has not only had a negative impact on
the people incarcerated but has also had an adverse effect on their families
and friends.

According to the American Academy of Social Work and
Social Welfare, this mass imprisonment of the population is made up of our
“most vulnerable and marginalized groups – people in poverty, racial
minorities, and people with behavioral health disorders” (2017). Many young
adults are also included in the population of incarcerated and with them
entering the prison at such an early age they are more likely to continue on this path of deviance due to this stage in life
being crucial to their social and moral development.

Jeffery Jensen Arnett, the
theorist of emerging adulthood, says that “identity exploration has become the
central focus of emerging adulthood”; occurring from ages 18 – 25.  (Hutchison, 2015, p. 278). “Most young persons in
emerging adulthood are in education, training, or apprenticeship programs
working toward an occupation” (Hutchison, 2015, p. 278).
These young adults are spending this stage of their life in a maximum-security prison and are not
obtaining the crucial experiences that they need to become successful
functioning adults. Ultimately, they are not able to obtain employment and as
a result they commit
additional crimes that lead them back to reentry into the prison system. According
to The Council of State Governments Justice Center, “In
2013, approximately 20 percent of young people incarcerated in the juvenile
justice system were between the ages of 18 and 20” (2015, p. 3). This
percentage may not seem high, however, keep in mind that this age group is a
range of only 3 years.
The other 80 percent of the
incarcerated population ranges from age 25 to above 65. With such a large percent of people being
incarcerated at this young age, it is crucial that steps are made to ensure
that they do not continue on this path and reenter the prison system again once
they are released.

The Bureau
of Justice Statistics researched the rate of recidivism among released
prisoners.
Recidivism refers to a person committing additional criminal behavior after
being released from incarceration. The research found that “within three years
of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were
rearrested” (Durose, Cooper, & Snyder, 2014, pg. 1). For young adults, the recidivism rates are significantly
higher. A study by The Council of State Governments Justice Center, “found that approximately 76 percent of people who were
under the age of 25 when released from prison were rearrested within three
years, and 84 percent were rearrested within five years.” (2015, p. 3).
This research shows that people who are incarcerated at a young age will most
likely spend the rest of their life in and out of imprisonment. This growing
problem of mass incarceration needs to be resolved starting with our youth and
young adults.

 

Public Policies, Laws, and Key Stakeholders

To remedy
this social issue of mass incarceration, policies should be focused on
providing more rehabilitative or preventative programs for youth. In
2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1276 Youth
Offenders: Security Placement, which “requires the California Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation to conduct committee-based, specialized review
for persons under the age of 22 entering prison” (Ahearn, 2014). With this
policy in place, young adults are more likely to be placed in lower security
facilities and will have better access to counseling, job training, and
education programs. Also, they are less likely to be exposed to dangerous
inmates that are locked up in a high-level facility. This bill is a step in the
right direction of helping to end mass incarceration, but more needs to happen
in order for real change to occur.

The ideology
behind this public policy is largely aimed at protecting young adults from
being exposed to more violent offenders, but its
intent is not to assist with reducing the high rate of imprisonment. In fact,
there is a lack of policies aimed toward remedying this. This is largely due to
the key stakeholders. Unfortunately, for the incarcerated, the business
of prisons is extremely profitable. It cost $182 billion annually to run the
prison system and these expenses are the profits of the business within them. “Almost
half of the money spent on running the correctional system goes to paying
staff” (Wagner & Rabuy, 2017). $29 billion goes to judicial and legal fees,
$38.4 billion goes to public employees of the corrections agencies, $12.3 billion
is spent on healthcare for the imprisoned, the rest is made up of construction
cost, food, utilities, bail fees, commissary, and telephone calls. Two large
companies that dominate the private corrections and prisons business are
CoreCivic and GEO Group. “In 2015, CoreCivic
received $911.8 million in federal money from its various prison-related
contracts”, and $756.9 million in state contracts (Wagner & Rabuy, 2017). The
second largest private prison company is The GEO Group and its revenues totaled
$1.84 billion. These companies and their employees are the key stakeholders who
are profiting from mass incarceration and if imprisonment decreases, so will
their incomes and profits.

The alarming number of people imprisoned in the United
States has recently gained interest in the Senate and has encouraged law makers
to introduce a bill in June of this year called “The Reverse Mass Incarceration
Act of 2017”. The purpose of this bill is “to establish a grant program to
incentivize States to reduce prison populations” (Booker, 2017). Overall, the
act would authorize the Department of Justice to award up to $2 billion per
year, for the next 10 years, to states that achieve both cutting prison
populations and keeping crime rates low. On the other hand, this act does not
offer an incentive for rehabilitative or preventative programs, which is
what is really needed in order to reduce crime and incarceration. Again, like Assembly Bill 1276, this Act is
maybe a step in the right direction, but will not be the solution to ending
mass incarceration.

 

Implementing the Public Policy

In 2014, when
Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1276 Youth Offenders: Security
Placement, the implementation of this Bill was to add section 2905 to the Penal
Code. This section instructed the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to
“assess
the readiness of a youth offender for a lower security level or placement,
permitting increased access to programs and to encourage the youth offender to
commit to positive change and self-improvement” (Bloom, 2014). This bill is
still too new to be able to see if a real change has occurred from it. However,
in 2010, a California inmate, serving a life sentence in California, had an 18%
chance of being granted parole by the parole board and a 6% chance of actually
being released.
Since then, the percentage of parole has increased. In 2014,
life prisoners had a 32% chance of being found suitable for parole and a 26%
percent chance of being released (Caldwell, 2016). These statistics could be an
indication that with offenders being given more access to educational and
rehabilitative programs that they are better able to demonstrate suitability
for parole.  An offender must generally
demonstrate that he or she has been rehabilitated in order to be found eligible
for parole. Offering opportunities for young offenders to rehabilitate while
they are in prison is fundamental to providing an opportunity for release. If
they do not have access to rehabilitative programs, it will be nearly
impossible to prove they have been rehabilitated in their parole hearings.

Although,
there has not been substantial evidence provided that Assembly Bill 1276 has
been successful, there is evidence that there is continued advocacy to foster
additional changes with the social problem of mass incarceration. In 2015, the
Senate passed Bill 261, which expanded the requirements for a youth offender
parole hearing when they were sentenced to state prison. Requirements previously were for youth
under 18 years old, but were expanded, with this Bill, to those who were under
the age of 23 (Hancock, 2015). Again, with this Bill, it is apparent that
advocates recognize that young adults are impressionable at this age and should
not be spending these years behind bars. Although they may be released at a
younger age than other parolees, the average age of release still far exceeds
the ten- to fifteen-year benchmark that would make the opportunity truly
meaningful.

            The
intended outcome of AB 1276 is to allow special consideration for young adults
to be placed in lower security level facilities and to gain access to education
and job skills. However, unintended consequences would be that some young
adults may still not be placed in lower security level facilities or if they
are they may not get the opportunity to participate in these supportive programs.
Also, the intent of this bill is to protect young offenders from further trauma
that can occur in prison, but even in a lower level facility there can be gangs
and violence that they will be exposed to. Further, there needs to be space
available for these inmates, at a lower level facility and there needs to be
available funding to run these educational and supportive programs.

 

Advocating and Developing Policy Proposals

My position on
AB-1276 Youth Offenders: Security Placement is that it’s a good policy that
needs more direction. I support what this policy’s intentions are, which is to
make the likelihood of educational and job training programs accessible to
young inmates and to try to keep them away from dangerous inmates, but I think
that it needs modifications. The policy simply states that the Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation needs to assess offenders that are under the age
of 22, but does not offer instruction of what items need to be assessed and
does not offer a guarantee that these inmates will have access to the programs
they need. Across the country, juvenile offenders serving life sentences are
often prohibited from participating in rehabilitative programming while in
prison. One national survey found that sixty-two percent of juvenile lifers
were not participating in rehabilitative programs in prison despite the fact
that most desired to do so. Eighty-two percent of those not enrolled in
programs indicated that they wanted to participate, but could not because
either the prison did not offer such programming or they had been denied the opportunity
to participate. (Caldwell, 2016). I, also, feel that the age limit needs to be
increased to 25 years of age due to scientific evidence, offered by the Board
of Parole Hearings, that “brains are not yet fully mature until a person is in his or
her mid-to-late 20s” (2017). It seems unfair that someone should be treated as
an adult even though their brain has not fully developed to its full adult
capacity. Therefore, I believe that modifications need to occur, but given the
high rate of incarceration, I think these changes should be drastic and they
need to happen quickly before the rate continues to increase.

The context of the
implementation needs a major overhaul. The federal prison system is just a
small slice of the total pie, but the federal government can certainly use its
financial and ideological power to incentivize and illuminate better paths
forward. At the same time, elected sheriffs, district attorneys, and judges are
also influential in reducing the rate of incarceration. “The beliefs,
interpretations, and mind-sets of those directly involved in the implementation
shape its evolution” (Jansson, 2017, p. 470). There needs to be external
pressures on the implementers to encourage them to follow through with the
policy’s intent of reducing the incarceration rate. State officials and
prosecutors need to rethink both the War on Drugs and the reflexive policies
that have served to increase both the odds of incarceration and length of stay
for “violent” offenses. Policymakers and the public need to confront the
thousands of locally administered jails. It doesn’t make sense to arrest
millions of poor people each year for minor offenses, make them post bail, and
then lock them up when they can’t afford to pay it. Our leaders need to
redirect corrections spending to smarter investments like community-based drug
treatment and job training. We need to implement reforms that both reduce the
number of people incarcerated in the U.S. and the well-known racial and ethnic
disparities in the criminal justice system.

As a policy
advocator, I can create or join an advocacy group, and help publicize the
problems we have with our current policies and their flawed implementations
(Jansson, 2017, p. 479). An advocacy group, that I found while researching this
topic, is the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC). Over the past few years, ARC
members have shared their experiences and insights with policymakers and
stakeholders and have helped build support for several important criminal
justice reform measures including AB 1276 and SB 261. I believe it is important
for social workers to protect and fight for the people who have been imprisoned.
Especially, because “in 22 states, felons lose their voting rights during
incarceration”, and for a period of time after, when they are on probation or
parole. People who have been incarcerated are typically unable to advocate for
change or do not have the resources to advocate. According to the NASW Delegate
Assembly, “Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to
address social problems” (2017). The issue of mass incarceration in the United
States is undeniably a social problem.  Therefore,
it is up to myself and other social workers to fight for this needed change, so
that our rate of incarceration does not continue to grow.