Methods to Approach Reforming the American Prison System

Methods to Approach Reforming the American Prison System

There’s little doubt that the criminal justice system in the United States is in need of reform. Much greater than population or crime rate growth are the number of people behind bars and the costs associated with keeping them locked up. Even small and inexpensive programs can have profound results in terms of lowering the number of people incarcerated, reducing recidivism rates, and alleviating the burden on taxpayers. The following is a compilation of realistic plans advocated by various groups seeking to reform the criminal justice system.

Mental Health

Recent estimates have shown that over half of all inmates in American prisons and jails are mentally ill. Social programs designed to help those with mental illnesses can have a significant impact on helping these individuals avoid criminal behavior, thereby increasing public safety and lowering incarceration rates.

Further, prison education programs that address mental health issues can mitigate violent or difficult behavior exhibited during incarceration. This can also lead to lower recidivism rates, especially if transition programs help mentally ill felons find support systems once released. Lower rates of reoffending will reduce overall crime rates and alleviate prison overcrowding, lowering state expenditures in the process.


Educating prisoners is a cost-effective approach that significantly reduces recidivism rates—currently a crisis in the criminal justice system. Once released, most felons are unable to support themselves, have inadequate credentials to find meaningful employment, and find little in the way of positive support systems from friends and family members. Often, the result is relying on irresponsible individuals for help, which is a major factor in that person committing future crimes. Unfortunately, the fate of most released prisoners is an eventual return to the jail cell. This undermines the societal goal of criminal justice programs and has led to rapidly inflated inmate numbers and increasingly burdensome costs to taxpayers.

Education programs within prisons provide individuals with productive opportunities while they serve their debt to society. These programs build self-esteem, create positive relationships with other inmates and provide prisoners with skills and credentials to find employment once released. Many studies have shown that educational programs drastically reduce recidivism rates.

Drug Policy

Beginning in the 1980s, nonviolent offenders started to fill jails and prisons at higher rates than violent offenders. While there are several reasons for this trend, the major contributing factor has been the “War on Drugs.” In the United States, drug control and prevention have primarily been the task of law enforcement and criminal justice officials. Jails and prisons are now packed with individuals who have never committed a violent offense, and in many cases, have never even caused property damage. Their main crime has been the sale or use of banned substances.

Unfortunately, using the criminal justice system to “fight” drugs has largely failed. Instead, it has helped cause a 240 percent increase in the number of inmates since 1980. Many critics are largely in agreement that the status quo is unsustainable and ineffective, although finding a solution to this problem is highly contentious.

Some argue for the legalization of several banned substances, although critics point to “gateway” drug use and drug abuse issues. Others prefer to approach the issue more sensitively by suggesting that drug prevention becomes more of a public health matter rather than the responsibility of the criminal justice system.

Again, disagreement exists on how to solve this problem, but reform is necessary to alleviate the number of nonviolent offenders entering jails and prisons.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice programs take a more holistic approach to reforming criminal justice. Those who are proponents of restorative justice criticize the extent to which criminals are absolved of real guilt for their crimes and the way the justice system ignores the victims of crime. Restorative justice can take many approaches, including everything from uniting felons with their victims to group therapy sessions that bring together ex-felons with victims of similar crimes. Many studies have supported the benefits of restorative justice programs by demonstrating lower recidivism rates among those who have taken part in such efforts.

Of course, there are many ideas in the public forum regarding the reformation of the criminal justice system. Targeting mental health, providing education, revising how the law approaches drug use and experimental programs like restorative justice are all viable measures that can work together to solve this national problem. Society will benefit in concrete ways, with the government spending less, lower crime rates, and upholding of values like justice and fairness—which most Americans support. The question of reforming the jail system is no longer why, but rather when.