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

Expert Answers
mkoren eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Correctional policies have reflected changes in social, political, and economic environments throughout the years. The United States imprisons far more people than other industrialized countries do. One factor for this is that a political environment to get tough on crime developed, which was related to the war on drugs. As drug trafficking and drug usage rose, a demand for stiffer penalties increased. These penalties involved jail time for those convicted of these crimes. People also demanded minimum sentencing requirements for people with multiple felony convictions. With the elimination of the federal parole system in 1987, people who were given life sentences would no longer be eligible for parole.

Another factor impacting correctional policies was economic. Private companies made big profits building prisons. Companies that provide services to prisons, such as providing meals to prisoners or providing prison guards, have also benefitted as the prison population has increased. Some prisons are for run by for-profit businesses. There are economic benefits for some people when the prison population increases. Also, when the economy slumped as American jobs were exported overseas, more low-skilled workers ended up in prison. They couldn’t get jobs and sometimes ended up committing crimes.

Social factors influenced correctional policies. People believed that if criminals were imprisoned, they could be reformed. At the very least, the criminals would be taken out of the communities in which they lived, hopefully making them safer. There was a belief that putting people in jail for crimes involving drug use would decrease the use of drugs. This led to increased political pressure to get tough on crime and to deal with the growing illegal drug activity. These beliefs drove social policy, even though they didn’t solve the problems.

Various factors have influenced correctional policies.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Correctional policies have reflected changes in our social, economic and political environments because our social and economic environments strongly affect our political attitudes and our political attitudes are reflected in the policies enacted by our elected representatives.

As an example of this, we can think about how our prisons have come to be overwhelmed with people in prison for drug crimes.  Until the crack epidemic of the mid-1980s to early 1990s, our prisons were less full and our penalties for drug crimes less draconian.  With the rise of crack came a demand for a crackdown.  In other words, our social environment (one in which there was perceived to be a rise in crime due to drugs) affected our political environment (in which there came to be strong demands for harsher sentencing of drug offenders).  This affected our correctional policies to the point where we lock up huge numbers of low-level drug offenders for long periods today.

Our economic situation matters too.  When the economy was stronger (and when there were fewer prisoners) we were more willing to pay for programs in prisons.  Today, with the weaker economy, we are reluctant to pay for any extras for prisoners.  In fact, our economic problems are even starting to push politicians towards reducing the number of people we are incarcerating because we can no longer afford to spend huge amounts putting people in jail if they are not true threats to society.