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Crime rates in the United States have historically been no higher than any other Western country. We are apprised of this fact by the International Crime Victimization Survey. Nevertheless, the United States has more people in prison than any other nation. The strategy of the U.S. criminal justice system is not working. You don't need a criminal justice degree to understand the complications in the system. The reason that there is an overpopulation problem in the prison system is quite simple; the incarceration rates have risen. There may be many opinions on how that happened, but the facts do not support that the U.S. crime rate is higher than in any other Western country to explain it. There is a reason that most never consider when contemplating the extremely high incarceration numbers in prisons. That reason is politics. Politics is the single biggest reason U.S. prisons are overpopulated.

In the news lately, we often hear about violent crimes affecting people while they are innocently going about their day. The place where Americans do stand out in the international crime statistics is violence involving guns. The U.S. is among the highest among the statistics involving gun violence. Keeping that in mind,
only one-fourth of the prisoners in U.S. prisons were there for gun violence, or for any other crime involving violence. Reports in the media are one reason we are under the false impression that most people in jail are there for violence, or that America is the most violent country among Western nations. Watching news reports about violent crime can make people feel that way.

This may explain the popularity of tougher stances on all crime during the 1980s and 1990s, regardless of whether the crime was violent or non-violent. Mandatory sentencing was politicized by many politicians of the past. It quelled the fears of voters and got politicians elected. The earlier idea of mandatory sentencing for non-violent offenders may be changing. Back when the mandatory sentencing and tougher crime stance took place in the '80s and '90s, we could afford the increase for incarceration expenditures. That is no longer the case; state budgets are shrinking from the recent recession, and states are finding that treatment is better and more cost effective than jail for many prisoners. For instance, Michigan has closed eight prisons and has reduced the number of prisoners by 3,260. This is attributable to drug and alcohol counseling, and job training; all of which are done outside of the prison. The recidivism rate is astonishingly low, compared to answering the problems of these offenders by incarcerating them. There is a 70 percent success rate from these programs, compared to a 17 percent success rate from incarceration. The same type of approach is starting to appeal to other states as well. New York's inmate population has decreased by 13 percent. New York officials are considering closing one or more prisons. This reduction is also due to reduced sentencing and alcohol and drug programs outside of the prison system. Considering that the average annual cost of incarceration is $28,817, it is much wiser to let these non-violent offenders enter supervised programs in order to cut state budgets, and give those who made bad life choices another chance to be productive citizens. The population of prisoners should consist of inmates who committed crimes against others, instead of crimes against themselves.

Prisons are big business, and as most of us know, politicians love big business. As a nation, we are struggling to repair failing
bridges and roads because of shrinking state budgets. We should not be spending so much money on imprisoning people who actually need rehabilitation programs instead of prison. Many people rally around punishment for the simple reason that they feel the non-violent offender deserves it. However, it is not enough of a reason to sacrifice our infrastructure when these people can be rehabilitated through programs outside of the prison that cost much less in both the short and long run. Take the politics out of the business of prison and we have solved the overcrowding of the U.S. prison system. It is as simple as that.
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The above piece was contributed by Marie Owens

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