Killilea, Alfred [faculty advisor, Department of Political Science
political science; criminal justice; public policy; prison population
Throughout history, a civilization’s attitudes toward the law, crime, and punishment have served as indicators of its morality and commitment to progress. What then, I wonder, will history say about the American Civilization? Might they ask why the wealthiest nation in the world also has the highest incarceration rates?
This is but one of the critical questions I was left with after my internship at the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office. America currently houses over 2.5 million inmates in state and federal prisons across the country. Despite the noticeable decline in crime (particularly violent crime) over the past decade, prison populations continue to rise; as a result so does the astronomical cost of maintaining the incarceration apparatus. Besides being wholly unsustainable, the predominating trend in criminal justice is to punish rather than rehabilitate. The problem with this is that when criminals complete their prison sentence, they are denied the means to re-assimilate themselves into society, such as: higher education, employment opportunities, and civic involvement, causing many to resume their criminal behavior.
The integration of drug offenders with violent criminals is another major problem, as it contributes to what are known as criminogenic (crime-producing) prisons. From a health perspective Marijuana is a relatively harmless substance compared to say, alcohol or tobacco, and yet we continue to spend millions enforcing, prosecuting, and punishing minor drug offenses rather than treating them as a public health issue.
The goal of my project is to dispel some of the myths that support these self-propagating policies, highlight policies that have proven successful (both here and abroad), and offer prevention-based alternatives for a more sustainable future. At the very least I hope to convey the urgency of dealing with these problems today, lest the economic and social attrition render us incapable tomorrow.