Top 10 Worst Aspects of the American Justice System

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The United States has a Constitution that protects its citizens from abuse in the criminal justice system. The right to a trial, to fair treatment by law enforcement are enshrined. Importantly, the Eighth Amendment also protects those convicted from cruel and unusual punishment.

In spite of all this, the American penal system is broken in many ways. Here are ten human rights crises that are happening right now, as a result of American justice.

10. Three Strikes Laws

three-strikes

Three Strikes laws became popular in the mid-90s, heralded as a way to be tough on crime. The idea was to remove repeat offenders of serious crimes from society. Three strikes laws mandate minimum punishments of usually 25 years for a third “serious” offence. The first example of a 3-strikes law actually came from Texas in the 1980’s, but they were introduced at their strongest and most infamous in California in 1994. There are similar laws in 26 states.

Many examples of convictions under the law have caused them to be considered disproportionate, if not outright cruel. Stories include people given 25 to life for stealing a pair of socks, or some baby shoes. Two life sentences involve the theft of pizza — one of a single slice — though this was overturned after five years due to public outrage. A law team from Stanford began challenging many of these rulings one by one, often using what they term the “You’ve gotta be kidding me” defense. There are stories of judges and prosecutors writing to those convicted, apologizing about the excessive nature of sentences.

Campaigners were able to have the law amended in California at the end of 2012, allowing prisoners with minor, non-violent convictions to appeal their sentences. Whilst many have been freed since these rule changes, there are still fights to release others that have served lengthy sentences for minor crimes.

9. Over-Incarceration

overcrowded-prisons

You might have heard that the US has just 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prison population. The prison population increased by 700% between 1970 and 2005, compared to a 44% increase in the population as a whole. Recently, California’s prison system was operating at almost 150% capacity, with prisoners placed in increasingly small holds.

Prison overcrowding has been linked to problems with psychological health and increased prisoner violence. It also causes obvious issues for the staff. This problem doesn’t look to go anywhere anytime soon, either; federal prisons ran at 139% capacity towards the end of 2011, and this is set to increase to 145% by 2018, according to a report by the Bureau of Prisons.

8. High Recidivism

revolving-door

Recidivism, or reoffending, is a big issue in the United States. A study in 2006 by the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons found that 52% of former prisoners were re-convicted.

Prison is popularly seen as a means of punishment and isolation from the rest of society. Unfortunately when people get out of prison, they’re back in the same position that led them to commit a crime, but with even less chance of getting a job and resuming their life. After all, who wants to hire a felon? In recent years, programs focused on greater rehabilitation have proven a success in several states.

Internationally, the lowest recidivism rate can be found in Norway. There, the justice system is much more focused on preparing people to re-enter society as useful and productive individuals, rather than punishing them for their misdeeds. Whilst many might be uncomfortable with being “soft” on criminals, Norway’s murder rate is an eighth of that in the US. The choice to be made is between an extremely thorough punishment, or improvement to society as a whole – both don’t work together.

7. Lack of Compassionate Release in Federal Prisons

Compassionate-Release

Prison is not set up to care for people with serious or terminal illness. Keeping people locked up after a stroke, or in the late stages of cancer, can cause suffering that may be considered inhumane or excessive. That is the reason for compassionate release, and it is very much in the spirit of the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

Yet the compassionate release system in the US, particularly in federal prisons, is shockingly poor. An April 2013 review by the Department of Justice found the Bureau of Prisons’ compassionate release program was poorly managed and inconsistent. They also concluded that a better system would save money, due to the high cost of caring for seriously ill inmates.

Grounds for release can vary from prison to prison – some will release a prisoner with 6 months to live, while some grant freedom to someone with a year left. Worse, prisoners cannot challenge the BOP’s decisions in courts, and compassionate release is rarely granted. Many die while waiting for a decision to be made.

6. Placing Children in Solitary Confinement

child-solitary-confinement

Solitary confinement is known to present the risk of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and even psychosis. This risk is particularly pronounced in children. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has called for a ban on solitary confinement of children in correctional facilities. They also call for any child that’s been confined alone for 24 hours or more to be evaluated by a mental health practitioner.

Human Rights Watch reports that children as young as 13 have been confined for over 22 hours per day. In their report, they quote a youth from Florida subjected to the treatment: “The only thing left to do is go crazy – just sit and talk to the walls.” This problem is particularly bad for the 90,000 youngsters held in adult prisons that are often kept apart for their own protection. Ironically, the majority of youth suicides in prisons take place amongst those kept in solitary confinement.

5. Prison Healthcare

prison-healthcare

Prisoners have significantly more risk of health problems than the general population. Infectious disease can spread in the confined environment of a jail. Addiction and mental illness are also obvious risks. Other, more surprising, statistics show that prisoners are 55% more prone to diabetes and 90% more likely to have had a heart attack than those on the outside.

The right to healthcare in prison is protected by the Eighth Amendment, and it’s big business. Illinois recently signed a $1.4 billion contract with Wexford Health Sources to provide healthcare for ten years, despite never auditing them.

Providing adequate healthcare to prisoners is not just important for them, but for the wider community. Proper care in prison reduces the burden on society when prisoners are released, and reduces the risk of disease being spread on the outside. Despite this, the number of prisoners with health complaints that don’t have access to medical care is high. One study found that 14% of federal prisoners and a fifth of state prisoners hadn’t seen a health-care provider in spite of persistent issues. Thousands of prisoners die in custody each year. Many of the deaths are preventable, caused by undiagnosed or untreated problems.

4. Sentencing Children to Life in Prison

Children-in-adult-prison

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life in prison without parole, sometimes as young as 11 years old. Often these sentences are automatic, and the circumstances of the child aren’t taken into account. Until 2005, it was even considered constitutional to execute young criminals, and 365 people under the age of 18 have been executed in US history. Today, almost 3000 people are serving life sentences for crimes committed as youths, effectively fated to die in prison.

Many groups have called for an end to these sentences, pointing out that children aren’t emotionally and physically mature enough to be held culpable in the same way as an adult. Amnesty International describes the policy as a violation of international law and standards of justice recognized around the world.

3. Prison Rape

prison-rape

Prison rape is almost a cliché, and normalized in popular culture, but the statistics paint a pretty horrifying picture. Whether in prison or not, rape is rape and is about as horrific a crime as can be committed, short of murder. Estimates of the number of prisoners that have been sexually victimized by fellow inmates or staff put figures at as high as one in ten. In sheer numbers, that’s over 200,000 people that have been the victims of sexual assault in prison.

Men and women are both at risk of assault. Bisexual and gay inmates, male and female, are at highest risk of being raped. In thousands of cases, the perpetrator is a member of prison staff. In one case in Alabama, a guard that impregnated an inmate received six months for “criminal sexual misconduct,” but wasn’t charged with rape. Lawyers for the woman in question believe the case wasn’t investigated properly.

2. Placing Children on Sex Offender Registers

child-sex-offender

The Human Rights Watch recently published a report that highlights the problem of children being placed on sex-offender registers. The intention of such registers — to protect children from predatory pedophiles — is good. Unfortunately, the laws behind these have proved susceptible to misuse and ineffectiveness.

Some of the crimes described in the report for which children were forced to register include a thirteen-year-old girl, convicted for willingly having sex with her twelve-year-old boyfriend and becoming pregnant. The boyfriend was also convicted and registered as a sex offender. Luckily, this was later overturned by a higher court, which pointed out “the law was not intended to apply to such cases.” Meanwhile, a fifteen-year-old girl was convicted of distributing child pornography for posting nude photographs of herself online. She was tried as an adult and required to register as a sex offender for life, despite the fact she was the sole child victim of her “crime.”

Individual injustices might almost be forgivable where a law serves a greater good, such as protecting children. But these laws often serve only to stigmatize and victimize youngsters for making decisions or performing actions which, in many cases, they are too young to understand. The HRW notes, “Several studies—including one study of a cohort that included 77 percent youth convicted of violent sex offenses—have found a recidivism rate for youth sex … are so low that they do not differ significantly from the sex crime rates found among many other (and much larger) groups of children, or even the general public”.

In general, the picture painted is that of a system that drains police and court resources, ruins the lives of children and their families indefinitely, fails those it aims to protect, and serves as a carriage for significant injustices.

1. The Death Penalty

death-penalty

The United States is one of only 21 countries to use the death penalty. It is the only country in the Americas to have carried out executions in 2012 (43 in total.)

There is a growing international trend towards abolition of execution. For example, only one country in Europe — Belarus — still has the death penalty on its books. That’s because there is no evidence that the death penalty works as a deterrent any more than any other type of sentence. Murder rates are lower in states without the death penalty, and have remained consistently so for over two decades.

One of the biggest arguments against the death penalty is the fact that innocent people are convicted to die. Some of them are released, but humans are fallible and there are undoubtedly innocent people that have died at the hands of the state. A bill in Florida actually seeks to speed up the execution process, despite the fact that had it been in place previously, people would now be dead that were released in light of new evidence.

Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called on the US to abolish the death penalty altogether. If the United States wishes to consider itself a humane and dignified country, then it surely must.


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21 Comments

  1. Oy…

    1. So what exactly is your plan for children who commit heinous crimes? I can see extending some mercy to kids who commit non-violent or property crimes, but if a kid murders his grandmother, are we not supposed to lock them up for life? What’s your solution? Deny them dessert for a few weeks?

    If they try to commit violent acts in prison, are we supposed to spank them? It’s interesting that the author seems to think that a child can’t handle solitary confinement, but seems a-OK with the idea that they’re fully cognizant of the consequences of illegal sex.

    2. Prison healthcare a problem? Dude – I actually do work in jails occasionally in my job and I can assure you that healthcare is not a “worst aspect”. Often, the prisoners get better healthcare than the guards who are employed to watch over them, and as an extra bonus, it’s essentially free to the prisoner. They can go to the doctor or the ER for any variety of reasons and never have to pay a dime – which is probably why people are committing crimes so they can get healthcare they can’t otherwise afford: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/nc-man-allegedly-robs-bank-health-care-jail/story?id=13887040

    3. The Death Penalty – you act like that’s a bad thing. Personally, I LIKE the death penalty. I wish we used it more often. When someone deliberately and maliciously takes the life of a human being, their life should be forfeit. In all your whining about how cruel it is to legally execute someone – I didn’t read a single word about the victims of those criminals we put to death. Nothing about the savagery or brutality or torture that the victims of those crimes underwent so that their killers could live out their lives in a place that many of them expected to end up anyway, surrounded by their gangmates; having food, shelter, health care, recreation, education, and cable TV – all for free; never producing anything for society again other than the oxygen they breathe out. All because a bunch of liberal pantywaists don’t want to see the killer twitch at the end of an IV line before going to sleep.

    • When someone deliberately and maliciously takes the life of a human being, their life should be forfeit. In all your whining about how cruel it is to legally execute someone – I didn’t read a single word about the victims of those criminals we put to death. Nothing about the savagery or brutality or torture that the victims of those crimes underwent so that their killers could live out their lives.

      – Well done for summing up the execution guards/executioners. A person who kills another person, kills another person, regardless of the reason. Putting a murderer to death because he killed one person, is still murder. And the amount of executions per year, means those guards are bigger murderers. They’re also murderers for stupidly putting innocent people to death on accident. Certainly a non-guard would be tried and killed for that, yes? Hypocrite.

      • Boy, are you wrong.

        The problem you’re running into is that we don’t execute people for killing other people. We execute them for murder. Murder has a specific legal definition that requires that the murderer unlawfully takes the life of a human being with malice aforethought. Since a legal execution is neither unlawful nor malicious, it cannot be legally considered murder – even when done to someone who was executed is later found out to be innocent.

        By the way – do you know how many people in the US have been executed since executions resumed that have later been PROVEN to be innocent? My research shows maybe 1, maybe 2. While that’s still too high, it’s a good indication that the system is 99.9% accurate.

    • Very selective aren’t we? No word about other valid points. Bu the way, should we not execute the prison guard who took advantage of this in-mate?

      • I didn’t go over the other points because I wanted to deal with the 3 biggest.

        And I’m not sure which guards you’re referring to. Unless they deliberately committed an act of murder (the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought), then no, they should not be executed.

  2. TopTenz.net is becoming increasingly less a site that offers entertaining and informative looks at the extremes in our world, and more of a site where you can post whatever (usually liberal) sociopolitical beef you currently have.

    The only requirement: finding ten supporting arguments or examples.

    More and more lately, coming to this site only leads to disappointment.

    • Jeremy, as the founder of Toptenz.net, I can promise you I have no agenda other than to post lists that people find educational and entertaining. I don’t promote liberal or conservative agendas here. I do admit to being a Christian and sometimes that belief will sway more to post or not to post articles, but politically speaking, I am very open to any opinions and articles. I suppose that maybe the liberals like to write more than the conservatives. That would be the only reason to see any such leanings on this site. I would, in fact, say I am more conservative which shows that i am not bias on political issues on Toptenz.net.

      • Shell,
        Thank you for your reply. I wasn’t meaning to focus on the liberal vs. conservative aspect of the site. I added that as an afterthought and, after even more thought, perhaps I shouldn’t have.

        My complaint is more about the social\political argument based lists, where the top ten entries are one side of a very real debate. When the authors use their list to debate a real world topic without an adversarial viewpoint, it just feels preachy. Perhaps the old “point-counterpoint” format would help.

        If you want to start some fun arguments, where people learn a thing or two and don’t feel like punching their screens at the end, I suggest starting new arguments where people don’t have (crazy) emotional attachments to one side or the other.
        Like:
        TopTen reasons _______ is the coolest non-earth planet. (a whole series!)
        TopTen rarest naturally occurring elements.
        TopTen influential TV shows that are no longer aired.

        I’m not the most creative person, even in my own home, so I am sure that you guys can come up with stuff even better than these.

        The point is, everybody knows the criminal justice system sucks. So does the reason for it’s necessity. What people don’t know about is the top ten maelstroms in history. Which also sucked, but not in a depressing way.

        • Jeremy,
          I see your point and that is probably because the authors are rarely unbiased in their writing and land more heavily on one side or the other. It takes a very open mind and high degree of determination to show both sides of any point equally. And it may well be impossible since every reader may not view the article as being equal enough. A losing battle in many cases to be sure.

          I like theme of your suggestions, especially the influential shows that are no longer aired. I do rely on suggestions from the writers themselves so some of the topics are based on what the writer knows or cares about. I guess we have more writers than usual that are more concerned with political or social issues. It seems to even out of over time though. I’ll see if I can’t get some interest in the influential shows list from a writer. Thanks for the helpful input.

          And, as I usually do, I point you to the least offensive and least political list on the site. It happens to be the worst list and one of my earliest lists, feel free to read at your peril. It is horribly boring.

        • Jeremy – this is one reason that my last set of lists deliberately took both sides of the issue (Top 10 Reasons Republicans / Democrats Will Dominate in 2014) – because I wanted to make sure both sides were (to the best of my ability) fairly covered.

          And if you want to get real technical… there’s more than just 2 sides. 🙂

    • I agree– this sight used to be a great source of entertainment and, occasionally, unbiased, unadulterated education. Now it seems that more and more lists have become liberal propaganda. I consider myself somewhat of a moderate, and this list brought up some good points, but jeez, it’s become consistently political on this sight.

      • As the owner, if you feel this way, I can promise you it is not by design. In fact, I have little interest in political lists and they usually do poorly in terms of traffic. I would rather keep it light and fun for the most part.

    • As an author of several politics-oriented lists on this site, I can assure you that this is categorically false. I’ve never felt that my views (mostly conservative) kept one of my lists from getting published. I’ve also felt that there is a free flow of ideas between people of all sides. My next list will hopefully contribute to that.

      I’ve also not seen too many politics lists recently. Most of them have been historical or entertainment-oriented.

      • 5minutes,
        One of my biggest pet-peeves, whether talking to my children or reading internet posts, is the use of undefined pronouns. For instance, your statement “As an author of several politics-oriented lists on this site, I can assure you that this is categorically false.” fails to tell me what “this” is. Is it one of my statements? One of your statements?

        What, exactly, is categorically false?

  3. they are criminals and deserve to be treated as such. I have no sympathy for children who commit acts of violence and then pay the price. i am actually in favor of the victims of the crimes dulling out the punishment. You know that whole eye for an eye thing that hammurabi came up with in about 1772 B.C. I hate this society mainly because of all the whinner who feel life isn’t fair.

  4. The United States is supposed to be the most civilized nation on earth. But when it comes to the death penalty we are barbarians. Kind of like Attila the Hun. And the most barbaric state in definitely Texas. Been there once never care to go back. Washington state my home is more civilized with the death penalty. Since 1963 the state has only executed 5 men.
    Get rid of the death penalty. I does not work.

    • The Death Penalty isn’t just about deterrence, it’s about punishment, and I’d say it works pretty well. No one who’s been executed has returned from the dead to kill more people.

      Besides, which is more civilized? A state that takes the life of murderers or a state that lets them walk free?

  5. The three strikes rule is interesting. Am I correct in assuming that “stealing a slice of pizza” wasn’t the offence in all three cases?

    Jailing someone for 25 years for stealing a slice of pizza would indeed seem harsh, but somewhat less so if the first two offences were for example serious assault, rape or something of that ilk.

  6. James Falconer on

    One thing I find unfair about the criminal justice system is their unwillingness mostly to forgive misdeamnor or minor crimes after a certain number of years and have these crimes be public record, which is legal discrimination against getting and keeping jobs.

    I have a shoplifting conviction from 18 years ago that my state will not expunge or sealed. I may be in a position where I may need to look for a job next year in the United States since I may lose my overseas teaching position because the country I live in is now requiring background checks of foreigners (because of pedophiles).

    I’d like to get my casino job back. Won’t happen. I would like to work any kind of company job, and I would be good at it. Probably won’t happen either. Fast food? I would rather be a criminal again.

    The FBI keeps a record of every criminal act no matter how minor. If someone is fingerprinted and put through the system, it is there and people who have been law abiding for years have had their lives ruined because of this. There should be a drop off point, after 10 or 15 years for non violent, non sexual misdeamnor crimes. Why punish someone for the rest of their lives?

  7. Zac Compton on

    lol this 5minutes guy, clearly a power hungry “peace officer” of some form or another…your opinion doesn’t matter. YOUR people are the worst gang in the country, i think you should get the death penalty.
    No, but seriously i think this article was well done. Me personally, im doing an essay and choosing to make it about how our entire justice system needs to be 100% re considered. I know a guy personally who has the hardest life of anyone i’ve met, because he became a registered sex offender at 14 for molestation, but the kicker is that he was a victim, and was told to do what he did. His life is ruined, he gets dirty looks, beat up and cant find jobs or housing. We are all human, every case is unique and shouldn’t be looked at as a “LAW WRITTEN” if someone is just a bad seed, that can be determined.
    Also, stop making everyone go to jail. and suspending licences for something that in no way proves the person is in any way a un safe driver…like child support.

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