The United States Prison System: Is it Time for a CHANGE?

Photo by Warren LeMay via Wikimedia Commons

Grace Monzel, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. Introduction

The United States is the world leader in mass incarceration.[1] Mass incarceration is defined as extreme rates of imprisonment as compared to historical rates of imprisonment.[2] According to the Global Alliance for Behavioral Health and Social Justice, “nearly 1 in every 100 adults in the United States is in prison or jail, a rate that is 5-to-10 times higher than rates in other democracies.”[3] Further, “since 1970, our incarcerated population has increased by 700% ­­–  2.3 million people in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime,” according to the ACLU.[4] These statistics have begged the questions: is this the best and most effective system and if not, can it be changed? This article will examine one alternative in particular—a diversion program in Ohio aptly named the CHANGE Court.

II. Background

A crucial place to begin answering these questions is to understand why prisons were created in the United States and how the prison system has evolved overtime. Professor Valerie Jenness from the University of California-Irvine Department of Criminology, Law & Society provides a brief historical answer: The first prison in America was founded in 1790 by the Pennsylvanian Quakers with the goal of creating a system that was less cruel and brutal than dungeon prisons and jails.[5] Prisoners could read scriptures and repent in order to become reformed prisoners.[6] Since the 1970s, there has been a huge expansion of prisons, due in large part to increased crime rates as well as some people viewing prisoners as incapable of being rehabilitated.[7] According to Professor Jenness’ article The United States Prison System, “today people seem to view the prison system as one that is less about rehabilitating criminals and turning them into functioning members of society and more about punishments.”[8]

Overall, prisons were originally created with the focus of rehabilitating people into society. With the advent of mass incarceration and the war on drugs, prisons have become overcrowded and punishment-based.[9] However, Ohio has begun to find and implement effective solutions. Judge Heather Russell, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati School of Law, has presided over CHANGE Court in Hamilton County.[10] Hamilton County CHANGE Court is a specialized Court with a judge-supervised treatment program for those charged with prostitution and related offense and victims of Sex Trafficking in Hamilton County.[11] It is voluntary and includes regular court appearances before the CHANGE Court Judge.[12] Those who take part in CHANGE Court work with a team of professionals to improve their life and work on skills to successfully stay out of the criminal justice system.[13] According to the Hamilton County Courts’ website, “CHANGE Stands For: Changing Habits And setting New Goals is Empowering…. There are four phases in CHANGE Court: (1) Orientation, (2) Compliance and Stabilization, (3) Growth and Development, (4) Community Reintegration.”[14]

Participants of CHANGE Court come from all walks of life, but most have dealt with drug addiction, leading them to turn to prostitution.[15] Further, many are homeless and unemployed when beginning CHANGE Court.[16] The program helps participants achieve job prospects, and it provides behavioral and mental health services, educational opportunities, family reconnections, trauma services, independent living, medical services, and more.[17] People who are eligible include those with current misdemeanor charges of prostitution or solicitation, along with related offenses, or a new misdemeanor arrest with a history of prostitution or solicitation.[18] They must be competent, have the cognitive ability to understand and voluntarily participate in CHANGE Court, and be appropriate for intensive supervision probation and case management services and treatment.[19] Participants may be eligible for expungement after successful completion of the program; the final decision rests with the Prosecutor.[20]

CHANGE Court has proven to be effective. Christina Kelly, who is 2 years drug-free, stated in a video on the Hamilton County Courts’ website, “I am proof that programs such as CHANGE Court and Drug Rehabilitation Centers work for those who want change. I came into CHANGE Court with nothing, no self-esteem, no relations with any family, no friends, no place I called home. Today this addict that you fight for knows she is so much more than an addict.”[21] Amanda Taylor, who is 2 years, 10 months drug-free, also stated in the video: “I’ve learned many things through Change Court, but most importantly I learned how to live and not just exist. I can honestly say that today because of Change Court I’m not only a productive member of society, but I want to be a productive member.”[22] Lastly,  Jackie Frommel, who is 10 months drug-free, stated in the video: “I’m grateful for Judge Russell for giving me the second chance at life. I got a great relationship with my mom and my two kids and I never thought I would have that, and I do. I’m starting to love myself.”[23]

III. Analysis

Based on CHANGE Court’s success, implementing more courts of this nature, especially those dedicated to rehabilitating people who have committed drug offenses, could be an effective way to reduce mass incarceration.  There are only three courts like CHANGE Court in the whole state of Ohio.[24] Ohio could greatly benefit from more programs like CHANGE Court because drug possession-crimes are the leading type of crime for which people are sent to Ohio prisons most years.[25] Further, programs with parallel missions to CHANGE Court could help reduce overcrowded prisons and mass incarceration in Ohio and the rest of the United States, as the nation’s incarcerated population has increased 700 percent since 1970, and Ohio’s state prison population has had a 435 percent increase, according to statistics compiled by the state prisons agency.[26]

Implementing more programs like CHANGE Court could also reduce the amount of rearrests after prisoners are released. Over three-fourths (76.9%) of state drug offenders released from state prison were rearrested within five years.[27] Statistics for rehabilitation compared to strict jail time are strong. Warren County began their drug court in 2016 and 22 of the 40 women that enrolled graduated and only 2 were found to have committed new crimes.[28] Further according to the Ohio Addiction Recovery Center, “75% of women who graduated from the Montgomery County drug court had no new crimes on their records and only 11% were found to have committed new crimes, three times less than the county’s 36% repeat offender rate.”[29] Programs based on the CHANGE Court model could have a significant impact reducing crowded prisons as Franklin County drug court judge Scott Van Der Karr estimates that 80% of all crimes are driven by substance abuse issues.[30]

IV. Conclusion

Overall, many believe tackling addiction issues with inpatient rehabilitation compared to strict criminal penalties is an effective way for Ohio to end rearrests in the criminal justice system.[31] Ronette Burkes, who worked at the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) for 7 years, has said, “We have a system where we are sending people to prison for crimes like drug abuse and things like that… We have a responsibility to ensure that the people who go home have a chance, have an opportunity for a different life… our recovery services programs are absolutely necessary for that.”[32] The United States has become the world leader for mass incarceration. The prison system is overcrowded and reoffenders are common. Programs like CHANGE Court could offer an effective alternative solution to imprisonment and punishment, one that helps people take control of their lives and become better members of society. Is America ready to CHANGE?


[1] The History of Mass Incarceration, Brennan Center For Justice (July 20, 2018), https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/history-mass-incarceration

[2] Mass Incarceration, Oxford Bibliographies (Apr. 24, 2012), https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195396607/obo-9780195396607-0033.xml

[3] Mass Incarceration, Global Alliance for Behavioral Health and Social Justice (last visited Feb. 8, 2021), https://www.bhjustice.org/mass-incarceration

[4] Mass Incarceration, ACLU (last visited Feb. 8, 2021),  https://www.aclu.org/issues/smart-justice/mass-incarceration

[5] The United States Prison System History, Valerie Jenness (Aug. 27, 2016), https://valeriejenness.com/history-of-the-united-states-prison-system/

[6] Id.  

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race, Drug Policy (Jan. 25, 2018), https://drugpolicy.org/resource/drug-war-mass-incarceration-and-race-englishspanish

[10] Municipal Court Judge Heather S. Russell, Hamilton County Courts (last visited Feb. 8, 2021), https://hamiltoncountycourts.org/index.php/municipal-judges/municipal-court-judge-heather-s-russell/

[11] Hamilton County CHANGE Court, Hamilton County Courts (last visited Feb. 8, 2021),  https://hamiltoncountycourts.org/index.php/change-court-2/

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Ohio’s Issue 1 Diagnosed a Prison Problem, but Solutions Complicated, The Columbus Dispatch (Dec. 3, 2018), https://www.dispatch.com/news/20181203/ohios-issue-1-diagnosed-prison-problem-but-solutions-complicated

[26] Id.

[27] Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders, United States Sentencing Commission (last visited Feb. 8, 2021),  https://www.ussc.gov/research/research-reports/recidivism-among-federal-drug-trafficking-offenders

[28] Ohio’s Female Prison Population Soars from Drug Arrests, Ohio Addiction Recovery Center (June 14, 2019),  https://www.ohioarc.com/ohios-female-prison-population-soars-from-drug-arrests/

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

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