The Paw Print
Since May of 2014 I have had two major, life-changing events occur in my life. The first was that my step-dad, Greg Carpenter, was acquitted after a week-long murder trial right here in Alamosa, Colorado. Many people have read the headlines about my family, so to clear the air and put rumors to rest, my step-dad was most certainly not in the wrong. His actions prevented the deaths of my mother, two younger siblings, a very close friend, my step-dad, and a stranger. Instead, the one killed was an abusive partner. It was a self-defense shooting and according to a person who was actually present, unlike the press, there was no other choice. The yearlong trial wreaked havoc on my family and we wondered how a system we once trusted could do nothing to help us.
The second thing that happened to me this year was that I located and contacted my biological father in July. Where I found him and where my letters that I wrote to him eventually ended up was so ironic I almost didn’t write to him at all. I found him in Arizona State Prison in Florence, Arizona with multiple violent charges racked up against him. I have no doubt that he is guilty, but to go from having an innocent man who was my father figure being wrongfully accused of a violent crime and then, thankfully, found not guilty, to finding my biological father in prison for actually committing violent crimes is a very confusing thing to have happen to a young lady such as myself. After writing many letters to my biological father, I grew curious about our justice system here in America. After all, my step-dad could have ended up being cell-mates with my biological father. After quite a bit of researching, I have found that there are many, many things wrong with our system, but the solutions are surprisingly simple. In a nutshell, we need to make some serious budget cuts, but that’s not all. America needs to reassess who goes to prison, the alternatives to incarceration, and things that we do not need but have for some unknown reason kept. Until we come face to face with these issues we will continue to see the prisons become over-crowded with no social improvement.
The first step to improving America’s justice system is really taking a long, hard look at who is incarcerated. When we think of prisons, jails, and incarceration in general we usually think of violent crimes, but the truth is that most of the prison population is not people put away for violent acts. In federal prisons a majority of crimes committed are not violent and are in fact drug charges. In the case of state prisons there are more violent crimes, but a significant minority of forty-seven percent are not violent crimes. Instead of locking so many people up for non-violent crimes such as drugs, homelessness, and juvenile technicalities, we should be focusing on actually helping these individuals attain a better life for themselves through restorative programs.
The non-violent offenders are not the only people who should be given alternatives to prison. In cases of insanity, prison is definitely not the answer because some citizens need psychiatric help, not a jail cell. Other offenders of violent crimes can also be helped through growing their brain. That’s right, growing their brain and specifically their amygdala, which is the part of the brain that deals with emotion and empathy. According to Daniel Reisel, who spoke on TED Talks, it has been shown that most violent offenders such as murderers and rapists have a much smaller amygdala than the average human being, which leads to them having a lesser ability to feel empathy and thus a higher tendency to commit violent crimes. There has also been research to show that the amygdala can be stimulated in a positive way that grows the small almond-shaped part of the brain, and allows the offender to feel more empathy like a normal person would. If we could get violent offenders into programs that helped them stimulate and grow their amygdalae, we could re-enter them into society with a much lower chance of having repeat offenders.
Before inmates even make it to prison they must receive a sentence from a judge. Unfortunately, there are minimum sentences for many drug offenses, which make it very hard for judges and very costly for taxpayers. By cutting out minimum sentencing as expressed in the Smarter Sentencing Bill, taxpayers will save money and judges can give fair sentences. Plus, by diverting drug offenses to alternative programs to begin with, there would be no need for minimum sentences at all. There would also be no need for many minimum security jails.
We can’t eliminate all need for the prisons that are costing America roughly seventy-thousand dollars a year per inmate through restorative programs, which is why we still need to make cuts within the prison system itself. There is a large debate about whether or not prison is a retreat or if the prisoners really deserve the amenities that they receive in prison. First and foremost there is the argument of whether or not inmates deserve televisions. When people on the streets of America can’t afford televisions in their own homes, why should inmates be allowed to have them? Elizabeth Craig of the Oregon Department of Corrections states that televisions are a great perk that help to control the prisoners’ behavior when used as an incentive, and many prison guards across the board agree with this statement. With guard to prisoner ratios around one guard per one hundred inmates it is easy to see why they would need a way to keep inmate outbursts down, but if ninety-four percent of prisoners at the federal level and forty-seven percent of prisoners at the state level could be redirected to alternative programs, there would not be a ratio problem that needed to be controlled by incentives.
It is clear to see that something new and improved needs to be done with the criminal justice system here in America. We need to stop the spending and put offenders into programs that will actually help not only the individuals, but society as a whole. Going through the experiences with my step-dad and my biological dad this past year got me thinking about the unspoken issues right here in front of us, but now it’s time for the rest of America to continue the conversation.