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Debtors, Prisons and Jails: A Dark Specter

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William Clements
June 6, 2019

There are numerous disturbing trends in America’s criminal justice system. One area of concern is the pretrial process. According to a 2018 Brookings Report, two thirds of the jail population and one quarter of the total incarcerated population are made up of pretrial detainees. Contrary to common perceptions, not everyone who finds themselves behind bars is convicted of crimes. A necessary part of the criminal justice system is the pretrial release hearing. It is during these hearings that the judge has the discretion to release the accused or to set specific conditions   which would constitute his or her release.

When unpacking the pretrial release hearing, it is important to realize that oftentimes the conditions of release are financial. This places more hardships on the financially vulnerable and overly policed populations. The next question is, why would we require monetary payments from already financially destitute people for their freedom? As public administrators, maybe it is time to visit this issue. It is well-known that national, state and local public policies will directly impact the most vulnerable populations within our districts. It is quite possible that now is the time for public administrators to remember that we are charged to efficiently govern all our citizenry and not punish those in poverty.

The first question which needs to be addressed is what people are encountering law enforcement agencies? To put the issue in focus, there were about 10.6 million admissions into jail in 2016, according to a Brookings study. We do know that there is a correlation between education and incarceration based on a 2017 study released by the National Center for Education Statistics. Naturally, it will follow that individuals who do not have high school diplomas or higher education for whatever reasons will constitute many of those individuals who find  themselves in the iron claws of the justice system. There have been numerous studies examining the impact of education on future criminality. The results have been staggering. A 2013 study published by the Alliance for Excellent Education identified that the nation could save as much as $18.5 billion in annual crime cost if the high school male graduation rate increased by only five percentage points. The question at hand is whether our current public policy approach is effective at aiding our citizens. With figures such as the ones mentioned above, it is highly likely that we, unfortunately, are responsible for creating the underclass through policy implementation.

There has not been much exposure given to the reality of why so many individuals sit behind jail bars. Contrary to popular belief, the reasons are quite often that an individual does not have the financial resources to, “Purchase their freedom.” In the Land of the Free, ironically, we have a quarter of the world’s incarcerated population. It goes without saying that something has gone horribly wrong with our criminal justice system.

The sad truth is that this reality has been ignored by those in academia and high levels of government for decades. Responsible policy implementation and just governance will require that policy administrators confront the realities of our constituency in order to improve the lives of as many as we can.

Despite resounding calls for reform, we still have a long way to go to fix these issues. As public administrators versed in the art of cost-benefit analyses and negative externalities, it would seem as though this reality wouldn’t be too complex to grasp. To compound the issue of incarceration in the United States, there are still decreases in educational performance within the country’s most criminally prone populations, which increases competition that will be required for gainful employment.

It is no secret that the future of the criminal justice system is of critical importance. Issues such as the opioid epidemic, single-parent averages and the introduction of the gig economy all point to the increasing likelihood of marginalized and target populations becoming further isolated. It feels that if criminal justice reform is not addressed systematically and holistically then we will come face to face with this specter.

Author: Dr. William Clements, Ph.D. is a Professor of Criminal Justice and Psychology at higher education institutions. He possesses a Bachelor of Science Degree in Justice Studies, a Master of Science Degree in Forensic Psychology, and a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Public Policy and Administration. He has served in the field of public service for a total of 12 plus years and is a well-read enthusiast for topics of economics, politics, homeland security, and most of all, public policy. Email: [email protected]

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