Sure. Everyone wants to reduce crime. And there are a host of theories about how to do it. Some suggest that the way to stop recidivism – that’s the tendency of a convicted criminal to commit additional crimes – is to make the punishment so harsh that it will “deter” the commission of a crime.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you believe that marijuana is the root of all evil and that using or possessing it should be not only illegal, but a felony. Uh, sorry, bad example – that’s already the law in Arizona. Under A.R.S. 13-3405, possession or use of any amount of pot is a felony. Now, we understand that times are changing. We have medical marijuana, as well as new laws requiring some offenders to be offered probation. But here’s the point. There are those who will tell you that harsher penalties lead to lower crime. Many of those who take that position have a vested financial interest in putting as many people as possible in jail. They include the large companies that run private prisons, and similar industries whose bottom line increases with a rise in the number of people behind bars. Their position has been successful, with the United States having by far the highest incarceration rate in the world.
But there are a bunch of problems with the position taken by the pro-jail folks. For one thing, most of the people in jail have not been convicted of anything! Somewhere around 60% of the people sitting in jail on any given day are there because of pretrial detention, meaning that they are awaiting arraignment, a bail hearing, trial, etc. Almost all the growth in the jail population between 2000 and 2015 was the result of pretrial detention, and the country now spends over $20 billion annually on jails.
In addition, if harsh jail sentences worked at reducing crime, we could still understand the pro-jail position. But studies show that even a short stay in jail often produces a significant increase in the chance that a person will commit another crime, and that increase is even greater as sentences becomes longer.
One way to begin to deal effectively with the problem is to avoid pretrial detention in most cases. Such a change is currently being discussed in Arizona, which is moving away from cash bail bonds, and allowing more offenders to get home detention.
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