Prisons can benefit society by restraining violent offenders and deterring would-be criminals from breaking the law. However, the overuse of detention has proved an enormous failure in the USA, where communities are torn apart and re-offending rates are extremely high. This is what a recent article by The Economist argues, whilst highlighting the disadvantages of America’s policy of harsh prison sentences and calls for alternatives to detention.

Despite Obama’s efforts to reduce the numbers of excessive prison sentences for nonviolent drug offences, Trump’s attorney-general Jeff Sessions is waging war against drug dealers, commanding prosecutors to push for harsh punishments. However, this is an economic disaster. Maintaining expensive prisons takes funding away from law enforcement services and crime prevention measures, whilst long sentences often mean that prisoners’ families lose their income, make ex-convicts unemployable, and have led to an increase in the American poverty rate by 20%.

Detention also increases recidivism. Minor offenders learn bad habits from harder criminals, and lose work prospects. One study showed that after the first year within prison, each additional year spent in detention raises the reoffending risk by 6%. However, in states where rates of incarceration have dropped, so has crime.

Money can be saved and recidivism may be reduced by less harsh alternatives to prison such as the use of tagging or GPS ankle bracelets. Rehabilitation within prisons such as cognitive behavioural therapy and employment programmes could also benefit both prisoners and wider society by reforming criminals and helping them to lead a normal life after release. The success of justice systems in countries such as Norway and even some more liberal American states such as Oregon – which focuses on reform in its handling of felons – prove that humane treatment is both effective and cost-efficient. It is hoped the Trump administration will realise that this is the key to a successful prison system, and more states will follow suit in their implementation of prison alternatives, for the good of all concerned.

To read more about this issue, find the full article from The Economist.

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