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Prison overcrowding has been an ongoing problem for decades. With many offenders convicted of non-violent crimes, people are looking for ways to reduce prison populations by implementing alternative incarceration options. States like California, New York, and Texas have larger than average prison populations primarily due to drug abuse and non-violent sexual offenses. They also have a higher number of inmates incarcerated for crimes associated with mental health issues. For inmates with non-violent criminal histories, an alternative incarceration program is an option that could allow many of these offenders to return to society and resume productive lives.
Alternatives to Incarceration: Why They Are Needed
Millions of inmates are incarcerated in prisons throughout the United States. Inmates range from hardened criminals who have been in prison so long they have become institutionalized to first-time offenders who were caught with a large amount of drugs or assisted someone else in committing a crime.
Even though there are several security levels, most first-time offenders show few to no violent tendencies or the inclination to be repeat offenders. There are many offenders who committed a drug offense that was more severe than could possibly be rehabilitated. Juvenile offenders are a unique group. Some are housed with adults if they have committed a violent offense. Others who have just entered the juvenile system may be better off in a juvenile detention center than in prison. Halfway houses or rehabilitation facilities are better options.
Drug-Related Crimes Vs. Violent Crimes
Drug trafficking and manufacturing are serious offenses. Drug possession and substance abuse often go hand-in-hand. Although they may not lead to serious or violent criminal activity, they are against the law and are sometimes punishable by prison time. Violent crimes, on the other hand, are serious offenses and may be punishable by life imprisonment. During sentencing, options are recommended, but when it comes to a violent offense prison time is usually the result.
Individuals charged with drug offenses often receive short sentences to be served in their local jail. Others with more serious offenses, like drug trafficking or manufacturing, may receive a few short years in prison. While their crimes are serious, the inmates are better served by being incarcerated in alternative facilities that offer drug treatment programs and substance abuse counseling.
Inmates, even ones convicted of minor crimes, run the risk of being institutionalized if they spend years in prison. Being able to serve their time in alternative forms of incarceration may be able to rehabilitate them so they don’t continue to re-offend.
First-time drug offenders may receive periodic detention instead of continuous jail time. Periodic detention means their sentence is divided and can be served over specific days. A sentence can be served over weekends or whenever the offender has time off. This intermittent detention allows them to serve their sentence at a local jail. They are able to go to work and receive the drug treatment they need as soon as possible.
Periodic detention is sometimes offered to individuals by the drug courts for non-violent offenses. Juveniles can take advantage of this unique alternative sentencing program option. In some cases, it may be referred to as a form of restorative justice because it gives an offender a chance to bring their life back to center and have a fresh start. As a sentencing alternative, it allows offenders to remain active and productive in society as long as they don’t break any more laws.
Alternatives for Minors
In addition to periodic detention, minors have other alternative sentencing options. Military-style programs, referred to as boot camps, are common sentencing alternatives for individuals under 21 years of age. This type of restorative justice works to combat anger management and provide the offender with a structured, yet productive environment.
Community-based programs like in-house residential facilities work to provide both an education as well as rehabilitation programs that, in the end, will open doors of opportunity that lead to a brighter future. The juvenile justice system uses these programs for first offenders and minors who may not have access to a safe home environment.
Alternatives for Drug Users
According to the Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review, 65% of the inmates in America’s prisons have some form of substance use disorder. Instead of keeping short-timers in a prison setting where drug use is almost as common as it is on the outside, offering them a sentencing alternative may actually help them overcome their addiction. Despite mandatory healthcare, prisons and jails offer very few substance abuse or drug treatment programs to inmates.
Many people look at drug convictions as mass incarceration. Approximately one in five prisoners in the United States are convicted of a drug-related crime. Even in such a closely monitored environment, drug use is rampant. The ability to provide other options for incarceration gives inmates an opportunity to get away from the drug abuse and allows them to enter a rehabilitation facility to serve their sentence.
Restorative justice programs are used within Native American communities where high crime rates are common. Instead of sentencing offenders in overcrowded prison systems, many tribal governments are using restorative justice programs that bring back traditional belief structures and behavioral programs that provide stability and guidance in areas where they may otherwise be lacking.
Restorative justice programs are also effective in dealing with juvenile offenders. Placing them in residential homes where they can be supervised and are exposed to a stable and nurturing environment may provide the structure and care they weren’t receiving in their previous home. They are given an opportunity to thrive in a home where they are supported and pushed to do better.
Alternatives for Mental Health Patients
Offenders who have committed various types of criminal acts because of mental health issues can sometimes be rehabilitated with medication or other types of treatment. If they are sent to prison, inmates may not get the treatment they need. By being considered for alternative sentencing, they may have the option to receive treatment and serve their time in a halfway house or group home that has the financial and medical resources to provide them with the treatment and care they need.
Drug use can result in long-term addiction issues. When a person is convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail or prison, they are forced to stop the drugs without any treatment or care. While this may detox the body, it does nothing for the mental issues that often accompany the addiction. Rehabilitation programs are often run by non-profit organizations that help to manage the addiction and provide the security that many drug courts require for an alternative sentencing program.
Sober-living houses are often used by the drug courts as a transitional form of housing for inmates convicted of drug-related offenses and who have had substance abuse issues in the past. If the criminal justice system wants the inmate to transition slowly, a sober-living house is ideal for an inmate who is being released on parole or serving probation. They receive the addiction treatment they need and have a positive support system to help them avoid falling back into their old patterns.
Work-release programs were developed to introduce inmates back into society by providing them with employment that will allow them to earn a wage and get re-acclimated to society while finishing their sentence at a halfway house or other facilities that provide additional security they need to finish their sentence. Work-release programs are closely monitored and performance reports are sent to the jail, prison, and drug courts on a regular basis.
House arrest is usually an option for first-time drug offenders who don’t have a history of violent crimes. An offender can be given house arrest for several reasons. A judge may offer house arrest for the same reason they give work release. It allows the inmates to do their time, care for their families, and maintain their full-time job all at the same time. House arrest and an appropriate probationary period may be what are needed to help an inmate get back on track.
Alternatives to incarceration on available for both adults and minors. Drug courts and courts throughout the criminal justice system are working to provide valuable options to inmates who can gain the benefits they need to return to society and live a full and successful life. It’s important to know what options are available and learn what each one has to offer.