In what ways have changes in the social, economic, and political environment of society been reflected in correctional policies?

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In some ways, a central problem of our correctional system is that it has not sufficiently adjusted to social, economic, and political changes in our society. This is one reason why the United States has such a disproportionately large prison population and why glaring injustices exist within the criminal justice system, which cannot be understood as separate from the correctional system. The fact that nearly 1.5 million Americans are imprisoned demonstrates that there is a real disconnect between society and our correctional institutions.

However, in terms of how correctional institutions actually work, there have been some changes, and some of these changes have been a consequence of rapidly expanding prison populations since the 1980s. One reason is that there has been an increased focus on providing mental health services, education, vocational training, drug rehabilitation, and other programs focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Sadly, though, these services have become stretched by expanding prison populations that have not been matched by funding, so they are inadequate. There has also been a shift away from incarcerating juveniles, who have been less likely to be determined delinquent by judges.

These changes reflect both broader social changes and current scholarship about criminal behavior. However, the predominant trend in the correctional system remains mass incarceration, which, separate from ethical and social justice concerns, makes reform of the correctional system more difficult.

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The changes in correctional policy begin with the court system. Because of the general problem of overcrowding in prisons, judges and lawyers have tried to find other ways to treat criminals – plea bargaining, fines, suspended sentencing, home arrests, etc. Also, nonviolent crimes and drug possession crimes have been treated much more lightly, with many marijuana possession crimes reduced to misdemeanors. In the corrections systems itself, social changes have brought about more rehabilitation programs, such as vocation-based learning opportunities and social outreach programs (for example, guide dog training.) The relationship between prisoners and guards has softened in response to society’s changed view of the rights and duties of the officers.  More attention is being paid to racial divisions in prison, too, due to the public's increased awareness of racial bias on the part of arresting officers.  Finally, a paroled or released convict (as one of the solutions to overcrowded conditions) has less pressure to declare his/her record on job applications.  Because of the  Constitutional prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment," the correctional system is fairly restricted in upgrading or revising its policies.

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