How Does the U.S. Prison System Work?

The prison system in the United States is under the strict authority of the state and federal government. Imprisonment is a synchronized authority operated under the Constitution of the United States of America. Incarceration is a major way of punishment for lawbreaking felony offenses that are committed in the United States. Offenders who commit less serious crimes such as misdemeanor crimes are likely to be sentenced to a shorter local jail term. Sometimes there are other forms of discipline or punishment sanctioned, such as probation, restitution or even community service corrections (being sent to a halfway house).

Within the United States, penal facilities function at many different levels of safety. These functions range from maintaining minimum security penal facilities that generally hold non-violent offenders to supermax prisons that house renowned criminals and even terrorists. In comparison to others, the United States has been documented as possessing the highest incarceration rate in the world. By the year 2006, it was shown that 7.2 million people were on probation, on parole or behind bars, and out of that total, 2.2 million people were imprisoned. By the beginning of the year 2008, 1 out of every 100 American adults was already imprisoned. The second runner up in regards to incarceration is the People's Republic of China, having 1.5 million people imprisoned, even though they have approximately four times the general population of the United States.

The Sentencing Process

When a person is arrested for committing a crime, there is a process that must take place before the prison term. During the investigation process, if there is sound evidence against the person arrested, he is generally held until a trial is presented. During the trial, a jury of men and women determine if the person is guilty or not. If he or she is found guilty, a judge will sentence the person convicted of the crime to a specific time in prison. However, this will be determined by several factors such as the brutality and nature of crime committed, state and federal sentencing procedures, the previous record of the convicted criminal and the judgment of the judge. It is very important for the judge to consider the mitigating or justifying circumstances of a crime in order to establish the suitable extent of the imprisonment.

Plea Bargains, Life Imprisonment and the Death Penalty

Numerous criminal cases, however, end in plea bargaining. This is when the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney for the defendant come to an agreement, allowing the defendant the privilege of pleading guilty to a lesser crime in order to receive a lesser prison sentence as opposed to participating in a trial, being found guilty and having to endure a much harder sentence.

Depending on the harshness and cruelty of the offense, some inmates receive a sentence for life imprisonment, and this is without any possibility of obtaining parole. In some states, however, criminals with life sentences are sometimes eligible for parole. Depending on the callousness of the crime, some sentences may even end in a death penalty.

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