Background on U.S. Criminal Justice and Prison Systems

Senator Jim Webb provided the following description of his proposed National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 which he introduced on March 26, 2009 and reintroduced in 2010 and 2011. Despite its urgency, it has not been acted upon since it was introduced 31 months ago.


On February 8, 2011, I re-introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act (S. 306), which will create a blue-ribbon commission to look at every aspect of our criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the criminal justice system from top to bottom. I believe that it is time to bring together the best minds in America to analyze the criminal justice system in its entirety, to examine its interlocking parts, to learn what works and what does not, and make recommendations for reform.

Why We Urgently Need this Legislation:


    With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses 25% of the world's reported prisoners.

    The number of incarcerated drug offenders has soared 1200% since 1980.

    Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals.

    Approximately 1 million gang members reside in the U.S., many of them foreign-based, and Mexican cartels operate in 230+ communities across the country.

    Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard and often nonexistent, undermining public safety and making it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to become full, contributing members of society.

Irregularities and inequities in America’s criminal justice system challenge our notions of fundamental fairness. Even with historically large numbers of people in prisons and jails, the percentage of Americans who believe crime is worse than the previous year has steadily increased over the last decade, rising to 74 percent last year. Americans depend on the criminal justice system to maintain our safety and security. Our nation’s citizens expect it to be reliable and fair, in addition to being effective at deterring crime and punishing offenders. Enacting the National Criminal Justice Commission Act will take the long-overdue step of undertaking a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system, producing recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system.

The following was in Senator Webb’s 2009 description of the Act.


    America's criminal justice system ... is a national disgrace.

    Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness.

    Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation's prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous.

    We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives.

    We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration.

There is additional information about criminal justice on Senator’s Webb description of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009


Maria Allwine, a long-time community organizer and peace and justice activist and organizer for the October 2011 End The Machine Occupation, provided the following Statement on Prison Reform.

The Problem:

Prisons in the United States have never been places where prisoners had much of a chance to rehabilitate themselves. Those who did return to society as fully functioning members did so in spite of the harsh and inhumane conditions found there. Since the 1970s and the start of the failed “war on drugs,” the prison population in the U.S. has increased 400%. Almost two-thirds of those arrested were simple drug users, most of them African American or Hispanic. After 9/11 the rate of incarceration for Muslims in the US has increased significantly, indicating the widespread use of racial profiling for political purposes. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, while Muslims account for six percent of the inmate population in federal prisons as a whole, in the nefarious Communications Management Units somewhere between 65 and 72 percent of the population is Muslim, indicative of an increase in the number of political prisoners. The US has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners, figures surpassing those of any other country, including China and Iran.


Over the past 30 years prisons have become profit centers for large corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group as federal, state and local jurisdictions have privatized their prisons as a way of saving money. While studies have shown that privately run prisons cost more than government run prisons, this has allowed jurisdictions to relinquish responsibility for the treatment of prisoners while falsely claiming cost savings. As a result, prisons are a growth industry, with the number of prisoners in private corrections facilities increasing by 33% at the state level and 120% at the federal level. Correction Corporations of America and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut), made a combined $2.9 billion in revenue in 2010. According to the Justice Policy Institute, “as revenues of private prison companies have grown over the past decade, the companies have had more resources with which to build political power, and they have used this power to promote policies that lead to higher rates of incarceration.” This has led to the widespread torture and abuse of prisoners, including withholding medical care, at all levels of incarceration in the US, capped by the alarming use of “Special Housing Units,” “Communications Management Units” and “Supermax” prisons where prisoners are held in solitary confinement for years, with no access to family or lawyers. Prisoners are slowly driven insane and murdered over a span of years within the US criminal "justice" system.


The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons (CSAAP), which is headed by a former U.S. attorney general and a former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, found: “People who pose no real threat to anyone and also those who are mentally ill are languishing for months or years in high-security units.” The commission also stated, “In some places, the environment is so severe that people end up completely isolated, confined in constantly bright or constantly dim spaces without any meaningful contact – torturous condition that are proven to cause mental deterioration.” The US demands other countries uphold “human rights” while it tortures, abuses and kills its own in prisons akin to those in the countries with the worst human rights violation records.


The American Bail Coalition, which is the for-profit bail bond industry’s national organization and lobbying wing, and Corrections Corporation of America, the US’s largest private prison operator are both members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a shadowy, extremely powerful lobby group that creates and distributes model legislation throughout state legislatures. This is a significant reason for the growth of the private prison industry. Since the late 1980s and 1990s, ALEC has created model bills that lengthen sentences, which have dramatically increased incarceration rates, and bills that privatize prisons, putting more of those inmates under the control of for-profit corporations.


Alfred Adler provided the following in chapter nine - Crime and its Prevention of his book What Life Could Mean to You Footnote . Alfred Adler (1870-1937), is the renowned psychologist and founder of the School of Individual Psychology.


Individual Psychology can help us recognize all the various types of human beings and understand that, despite this variation, human beings are not remarkably different from one another. We find, for example, the same kind of failures exhibited in the behavior of criminals as in that of problem children, neurotics, psychotics, suicides, alcoholics and sexual deviants. They all fail in their approach to the problems of life; and, in one very definite and noticeable area, they fail in precisely the same way: every one of them fails in social interest; they are not concerned with their fellow human beings. Even here, however, we cannot distinguish them from other people. No one can be held up as an example of perfect cooperation or perfect social feeling, and criminals only differ from the common run in the severity of their failure.


Corporal punishment is ineffective because it only confirms to criminals that society is hostile and impossible to cooperate with. Something of this sort happened to individuals who became criminals, perhaps, at school. They were not trained to cooperate and so they did their work badly, or misbehaved in class. ... They feel that people are against them. ... The children lose whatever shreds of confidence they had. They are not interested in their schoolwork, their teachers or their school friends. They begin to play truant and to hide where they cannot be found. In these places they find other children who have had the same experience and have taken the same road. ... , since they are not interested in the social demands of life, they see these other children as their friends and society in general as their enemy. These people like them and they feel better in their company. It is in this way that thousands of children join criminal gangs, ... if in later life, we treat them in the same way, this will only bear out their view that we are their enemies and only criminals are their friends.


There is no reason at all why such children should be defeated by the tasks of life. We should never allow them to lose hope and we could prevent this very easily if we organized our schools so that such children were given confidence and courage.


Corporal punishment is ineffective for other reasons too. Many criminals do not value their lives very highly. Some of them are very near suicide at certain moments of their lives. Corporal or even capital punishment hold no terrors for them.


... No one need be defeated by the problems of life. Criminals have chosen the wrong way of dealing with them; we must show them where they have made the wrong choice and why, and we must develop in them the courage to be interested in others and cooperate.


I would like to emphasize that this ability to cooperate must be learned. There is no question of its being hereditary. There is a potential for cooperation, and this potential must be regarded as inborn, but it is common to every human being, and to be developed it must be trained and exercised. All other points of view about crime seem to me irrelevant, unless we can produce evidence of people who were trained in cooperation but still became criminals.

The value of cooperation can be taught in the same way that geography can be taught, for it is a truth and we can always teach the truth. ... All our problems require a knowledge of cooperation.


... We know, therefore, exactly what we must do: we must train criminals in cooperation.

... we ought to make it possible for everyone who wants to work to secure a job. This would be the only way to realize the demands of life in our society so that a great part of humankind would not lose the last remnants of their ability to cooperate. There is no question at all that if this were done the number of criminals would go down.

We should also avoid in our society everything that can act as a temptation to criminals or to poor and destitute people. If great extremes of poverty and luxury are apparent, it offends those who are badly off and incites them to envy. We should, therefore, cut down on ostentation: it is not necessary to flaunt one’s wealth.


It would be very helpful if we increased our efforts to improve our crime-solving record. As far as I can see, at least forty per cent of criminals, and perhaps far more, escape detection, and this fact is always at the back of every criminal’s mind. ...

... Criminals should never be threatened. It is also important that criminals should not be humiliated or challenged either in the prison itself or after they leave prison.

It would be much better if we were more discreet and did not mention the names of criminals or give them so much publicity. This implies that before indictments are made public, criminal proceedings and the documentation should be kept, discreet, confidential and private and not revealed or “leaked” to the public.


An increase in the number of probation officers would be useful, if the right type of person is appointed; and probation officers themselves should be taught about the problems of society and the importance of cooperation.


Clarence Darrow provided the following in his book, The Story of My Life Footnote . Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), is one of the most famous American lawyers, civil libertarians and advocates of the downtrodden.


On my return from Europe I was deeply grieved and somewhat surprised to see the cruel results of the steady and unscientific campaign against crime. The whole movement was directly in conflict with modern psychology and, in fact, with all the teachings of science.


Darrow provides an outstanding strategy for restorative justice: All of those who for any reason cannot or do not adjust themselves to important rules [i.e. have violated a serious law] should be examined by experts to find out why it is and what can be done; They should be helped in every way possible. Regardless of what they have done they should be released when it seems safe; meantime they should be kept under supervision in kindness and sympathy instead of harshness. It is entirely possible that a person guilty of homicide could safely be set free in a short time, and that a sneak-thief or a beggar could never be changed or cured or released. Each individual should be considered by himself. To subject every inmate of prisons to the same treatment is like giving every hospital patient the same doses of medicine, or the same surgical operation, and, of course, however absurd this might seem to those who do not think, the time will come when something like this will take the place of the archaic, costly, and pernicious system that has long since been outworn.


Additional items that are wrong with our criminal justice systems include:


1.  Many Investigators, prosecutors and judges at every level.

     a.  Routinely violate the rights of defendants. They conduct searches, infiltrate families and groups and wiretap without warrants. They issue warrants without probable cause and entrap individuals.

     b.  Use practices that are unscientific and directly in conflict with modern psychology by threatening, humiliating and challenging defendants.

     c.   Provide few opportunities for individuals accused of crimes and prisoners to pay restitution, apologize and reconcile with their victims.


Peter Joseph, Roxanne Meadows and Jacque Fresco provided the following in chapter 7 of The Zeitgeist Movement - Observations and Responses, February 2009:

The legal system today is a massive social distortion that does not take into account the environmental influences of a supposed “criminal”. Human behavior is a product of the environment. It is the environment that really creates our values and behavior. There is no fixed, predetermined ‘human nature’. Our values, methods and actions are developed and derived from our experiences. Therefore, since it is the environment that influences our behavior itself, if we find patterns of behavior in our society that are socially offensive and abusive, we should look to the environment to figure out why those behaviors manifest to begin with.

If 120,000 people can come together to build a nuclear bomb, as was done with the Manhattan Project in the late 1930s, there is no reason why we cannot come together and use human ingenuity to accomplish incredible social achievements for the betterment of humanity. It is time we unleash our ‘Weapons of Mass Creation’ (WMCs) unto the world. It is time we take responsibility for each other and ourselves. We have the knowledge, means and initiative to devise an entirely new social architecture that can create a world we actually enjoy and flourish in.