The United States has the largest incarceration rate across the entire globe (Tsai & Scommegna, n.d.). In fact, with less than 5% of the world’s population, a quarter of the world’s prisoners are behind bars in this country (Liptak, 2008). Moreover, recidivism rates are high, perhaps the most significant indicator that incarceration is not necessarily an effective deterrent for future crimes. Additionally, high recidivism rates suggest that the primary purpose of the prison system in this country, rather than rehabilitation or corrections for criminal behavior, is ultimately punitive. In fact, one study found that more than 4 in every 10 offenders return to prison within three years, “a collective rate that has remained largely unchanged in years, despite huge increases in prison spending,” that surpasses billions of dollars annually for states (Johnson, 2011, para 1).

The criminal justice system is bloated and out of control in this country, and yet, politicians—and Republicans in particular—are combative towards the very types of reforms that could correct the system for the better. For instance, in response to a program in New York to underwrite college classes in 10 state prisons, with the cost per inmate being miniscule relative to how much it costs per year to incarcerate a prisoner, Governor Cuomo’s proposal received such harsh political backlash (primarily by Republicans) that he dropped the initiative from his budget (Keller, 2014).

The arguments by naysayers of this policy essential came down to, “’it should be do the crime, do the time, not do the crime, earn a degree,’” as one Senator put it (Keller, 2014, para 3). In other words, education is a privilege, and if you commit a crime, that entitlement is revoked; despite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that, “Everyone has a right to education” (Article 26). Okay, let’s put that aside for a moment, or let’s say one could make the argument if you break the law in some kind of way perhaps those universal rights no longer apply to you. What about the fact that prisoners tend to be less educated, so that in fact the limited opportunities that come from lack of education may be a driving factor behind criminality to begin with. Or, that research suggests that when prisoners do participate in prison education programs, “inmates who participated in these programs were 43 percent less likely to return to a life of crime” (Keller, 2014, para 9). Considering that 95% of prisoners will eventually be released back into society, those numbers are compelling.

And yet, policy makers who oppose these modest reforms have declared that access to education will make inmates “smarter criminals,” as an upstate assemblyman against Cuomo’s initiative used a “Breaking Bad” comparison when he exclaimed that such access would, “turn a bunch of Jesse Pinkmans into Walter Whites—all on the taxpayer’s dime” (Keller, 2014, para 4). Yeah, because it is predominantly smart people who are breaking the law; as a taxpayer, I am much more concerned with the $60,000 it costs per year to incarcerate a prisoner, not the modest $5,000 per inmate it would cost to give access to education that could have a restorative impact on the inmates’ chances of a successful transition back into civil society (Keller, 2014).

Maybe these politicians should spend less time watching television and more time applying academic research to solve applicable problems. Indeed, "’Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror,’" James Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research. ‘Certainly there are no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons’" (Liptak, 2008, para 16). It’s time for policymakers in this country to do something sensible to alter yet another embarrassing ranking for this country, even more so given that the U.S. is touted as the land of the free.

Johnson, K. (2011). Study: Prisons Failing to deter Repeat Criminals in 41 States. USA Today. Retrieved on April 11, 2014 from: .

Keller, B. (2014). College for Criminals. The New York Times, Op-Ed. [Print]

Liptak, A. (2008). U.S. Prison Population Dwarfs that of Other Nations. The New York Times, America. Retrieved on April 11, 2014 from: .

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations.

Tsai, T., & Scommegna, P. (n.d.). U.S. has World’s Highest Incarceration Rate. Population Reference Bureau. Retrieved on April 11, 2014 from: .

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2014

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