It is no secret that prisons in the United States are filled to overflowing. With 2,145,100 prisoners, as reported by Institute for Criminal Policy Research, the U.S. leads the world in the number of incarcerated citizens, many for non-violent offenses. This statistic is remarkable. China, the country with the second highest number of prisoners, 1,649, 804, has 1.371 billion citizens overall, whereas the United States’ population is only 321.4 million. And, according to Smartasset, an online journal, the American prison system costs roughly $74 billion per year. These statistics lend themselves to the conclusion that some changes to the system may be beneficial, especially in relation to non-violent criminals.
Luckily, there are alternatives to the way the system has traditionally been run. Many have been tried and implemented — not only in smaller communities in the U.S. itself, but around the world — with positive results for both the incarcerated individuals and the broader community. Some of these alternatives are:
Suspended Sentences and Probation
Two of the main tools used as an alternative to jail are suspended sentences and probation. If the judge deems that a criminal has not committed a violent or serious crime and are not a danger to the community, they may impose a sentence but suspend it. So long as the offender follows the law, their sentence will not be enacted. Similarly, the judge may put the offender on probation, to be tried if and when the offender again breaks the law.
Fines are generally imposed for less serious offenses and are intended to deter the defendant from repeating the offense. People know that if they commit the offense again, the penalty will increase and include higher fines and maybe jail time.
While fines go to the state (or federal or local government prosecuting the crime), restitution money is paid by the defendant to the victim or goes into a state restitution fund. In some cases, the offender is required to return or replace stolen or damaged property; they may also have to compensate victim for the physical injuries they endured or for the cost of medical and psychological treatment they had to have. Sometimes the offender is ordered to pay for a victim’s funeral and other costs.
When the defendant has committed a misdemeanor or low-level crime, he may be sentenced to community service. Generally, this is unpaid work that benefits the community as a whole, and it must be completed in an allotted amount of time.
Under certain circumstances, a case can be removed from the criminal justice system and the defendant placed in a diversion program — often a drug and/or alcohol treatment program.
Other alternatives to imprisonment are:
- Requiring the installation of a breathalyzer device in the defendant’s car which prevents the car from starting if the driver has alcohol on his breath
- Ordering the defendant to give speeches or teach classes about the dangers of criminal behavior
- Requiring the defendant to attend lectures given by crime victims so they will understand the impact of their wrongdoing
- Completion of a drug or alcohol treatment program
- Weekend jail
- “House arrest” with an electronic monitor.
Simply using the alternatives that are already available could potentially alleviate prison crowding and many of the negative issues of our current criminal justice system. The outcomes have proven effective, not simply for the offenders but also for the community.