Do Prison Inmates Deserve Incarceration?


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The American Prison Vote Project

Are American prisons incarcerating the right people?

Do violent or repeat offenders deserve prison?


There are endless groups advocating for lessening or ending (at least by 50 percent) America’s reliance on prisons. “They are costly and inefficient,” many will say. “Americans have the shame of having the highest rate of incarceration in the world.”

This discussion has been going on for decades and the groups arguing against an “overreliance” on prisons are impressive with the vast majority of the criminological community leading the way. Colleagues in corrections are often supportive of their positions for pragmatic reasons. The Obama administration is counted as being in this camp. Candidate Clinton calls for an end to current levels of incarceration

Within the last five years, the anti-prison coalition includes a strong segment of conservatives. That alliance of conservatives and liberals was thought to be the turning point in finally getting the American public to accept other strategies beyond incarceration.

There are no organizations fighting for prisons or the current rate of incarceration. Yes, prosecutors and some in law enforcement will offer opposition, but they are massively outgunned and outmanned by opponents.

Reasonable Conclusions

So we can come to two reasonable conclusions based on the above, the use of incarceration is greatly decreasing and federal and state governments are creating programs and structures to take on more people who would have gone to prison in the past.

The answer is “no” to both.


The use of incarceration has either declined slightly or increased (depending on the numbers you choose) and federal and state governments are doing little to prepare alternatives.

Per the latest US Department of Justice data (Bureau of Justice Statistics) on “correctional populations” (prison, jail and community corrections), the incarcerated population (up 1,900) slightly increased during 2014. There was a small increase in the jail population (1.8%) followed by a small decrease in the prison population (1.0%). The correctional population (prison, jail and probation-parole) declined by an annual average of 1.0% since 2007 (Correctional Populations in the United States).

The number of “prison inmates” from 2004 to 2014 increased by 0.6 percent and the rate decreased by 0.2 percent (Prisoners in 2014).

Note that a small number of states drive national totals and efforts to reduce the prison population in California (Supreme Court ruling on medical care) and the federal system influence everything. Also note that the crime rate fell to record lows over the last twenty years so one assumes that this would affect prison numbers.

The bottom line for the US correctional population (2004-2014) is stagnancy in the prison population with reductions of 1 percent a year in the overall correctional population (prison, jail and parole-probation) mostly driven by a decrease in the probation population (probably due to less crime).

Community Corrections

States and the federal government are engaged in a wide variety of research or small-scale rehabilitation efforts but the truth is that the vast majority of prison inmates do not get the programs they need. It’s equally true that parole and probation agencies have huge caseloads and little in the way of programs they fund to support additional people.

How Could This Be?

How could this be? How could the most supportive administration in our lifetime in favor of lessening our dependence on the use of prisons, backed up by dozens of national organizations and associations, the great majority of criminologists and many in corrections plus an alliance of conservatives and liberals have done so poorly?

In our opinion, it’s the belief within American society that the great majority of people in prison deserve to be there based on the severity of the crime(s) or repeat violations.

Deserve Prison?

In our minds there cannot be any other explanation. Most Americans believe that inmates are in prison because they have done something extremely violent or they have committed so many crimes that prison is the only reasonable alternative.

When I was in public affairs for twenty-five years for two correctional/law enforcement agencies, I had the opportunity to look at hundreds of case files involving inmates or people who were once incarcerated but now on parole or probation. I never saw one case where I questioned the reasonableness of that person’s incarceration. I was astounded by either the severity of their crimes or the number of contacts they had with the criminal justice system.

Note that there is Department of Justice data indicating that most convicted of felonies do not go to prison and about half (51%) of all defendants had five or more prior arrest charges, and more than a third (36%) had 10 or more (Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties)

I’m aware of examples where prison inmates did get terms I thought were excessive, but there are few cases where I thought that they did not deserve some form of incarceration.

Many Other Issues

We’re not addressing all correctional and societal issues here (i.e., do the mentally ill belong in prison?) only the appropriateness of an individual deserving to be in prison based on his actions and criminal history.

Critics of the current use of prisons will emphatically state that prison destroys families and incarceration does not lower rates of recidivism. But does that have an impact on the perception that those in deserve to be there? Based on the numbers, apparently not.

We are supportive of efforts on the front end as to people being diverted from prosecution. We understand that too many people come into contact with the criminal justice system (i.e., marijuana use should be legal or decriminalized). Prison sentences don’t have to be as long as they are. Three strike provisions should only apply to a higher class of violent crimes. The mentally ill should be treated before they get to the justice system.

We like the observation that people should go to prison based on their propensity towards “violence,” not because we are mad at them. But that would leave a lot of people doing a lot of harm out of prison including Bernard Madoff (operator of a Ponzi scheme considered the largest financial fraud in U.S. history).

Even on the back end of the system, there are legitimate questions. Some believe that fifty percent of women inmates could be safely released if we had programs in place. Any inmate over 50 serving at least half of his sentence should be considered for release based on declining rates of recidivism. Parole should be reinstated.

Crime Victim Support for Alternatives?

Yes, there are polls stating that crime victims strongly support alternatives to incarceration, but every one of these polls are from groups advocating less reliance on incarceration. From their data, you could come to the conclusion that crime victims represent the most liberal group in America when it comes to prison use.

But I had hundreds of conversations with victims and victim service organizations (I was the victim liaison for a state criminal justice agency and I was in charge of responding to victim’s issues for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse) and never, not once did I hear anyone ask for their offender to be released from prison. Alternatives to incarceration were never discussed. They all believed that their offenders deserved prison.

The American Prison Vote Project

But does all the above change the question as to whether people currently in prison deserve to be there?

Isn’t the perception of the American people (that the right people are in prison) the driving force for current rates of incarceration?

Is it possible that American’s are wrong and need to consider less incarceration?

Is there a way to answer this question?

We believe we have a solution. Have the American people vote on an individual’s reasons (or lack of reasons) for incarceration.

Let the newspaper of record convene a group in every state to answer the question.

Let the newspaper ask their prison system to pull 100 cases at random redacted of any information that identifies the inmate to protect his privacy (required by law).

Let there be a group consisting of:

A crime reporter

A prosecutor

A police administrator

A victim’s advocate

A public defender

A correctional administrator

A criminologist

A community activist

A member of the ACLU

If race or ethnic heritage is an issue, let there be proportional representation.

Pull 100 redacted cases at random from all classification types (maximum, medium, minimum).

The newspaper can offer the same case information to its readership through established and reliable Internet survey platforms. Let the public vote.

We stacked the deck to represent three who “may” be inclined to support incarceration and five who “may” be supportive of alternatives plus the theoretically neutral reporter.

Let the group spend one hour per case. They are free to interpret the deservedness of the individual’s incarceration. Not the sentence, just whether of not society believes the person deserves to be incarcerated.

It’s a yes or no vote.

It will be a subjective discussion after a reading and review of the person’s crime, what he was originally charged with, why some charges were dropped, his arrest and conviction history.

That’s it. No other criteria.

The reporter would summarize the case and vote for the public daily and provide summations/rationales/reasons for the decision.

If we have a vote of 70 percent for incarceration, we have an answer as to the lack of movement as to alternatives to incarceration.

If we have a vote of 70 percent against incarceration, then we have an American mandate for change.

Let the American people decide. Let newspapers take the lead.

No more advocacy. No more politics. Just the will of the American people.

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