The United States has the world’s largest correctional system, with approximately 2.3 million inmates serving time in prison at any given time. This number does not include the estimated 80,000 youths being held in juvenile detention facilities.
Additionally, it’s been reported that as many as 100 million Americans (or 1 in 3) have a criminal record.
Numbers like these are alarming for several reasons, and they’ve led many people to believe that our criminal justice system needs to undergo some type of reform to be sustainable and effective. But how we go about doing this leaves much room for debate.
Because of the importance of this issue, we decided to make it the topic of this year’s essay contest.
While we were only able to select 1 winner—Logan Gomez from the University of Arizona—we wanted to share some snippets from a few of our other favorite student essays that included a wide variety of ideas, solutions and perspectives.
Here are some of their answers to the prompt:
What are the 3 largest challenges to the criminal justice system today? With these top issues that law enforcement and prosecutors face nationwide, what can be done to encourage evidence-based solutions?
Logan Gomez, a junior at the University of Arizona (scholarship winner)
“Despite being a fundamental part of this nation, the United States criminal justice system faces several issues that prevent it from serving the American people the best it possibly can. Currently, the criminal justice system’s three largest issues are police retention and recruitment, lack of resource parity between prosecution and public defenders, and its public perception.
Currently, police recruitment and retention is arguably the largest problem facing the criminal justice system. According to a 2021 report by the Police Executive Research Forum, the rate of police resignation across police departments of all sizes dramatically increased from 2016 to 2021. The largest increase was from 2020 to 2021, when most officers left the profession before achieving eligibility for full pensions. Hiring rates show similar trends, though only among police departments with over 250 officers. This severely reduces law enforcement’s ability to serve the public in as many as 25% of police forces (IACP, 2019). According to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ, 2020) and the IACP, police forces need to address these issues by bettering their public perception while addressing issues that most contribute to officer stress and burnout.”
Lauren Beizer from Villanova University
“Evidence-based solutions are crucial to ensure the effectiveness of remedies for various issues; specifically, those issues that affect the criminal justice system. In terms of ineffective public defenders, there should be a requirement that private practicing attorneys perform a certain amount of pro-bono hours a month to provide adequate public defense to those who cannot afford an attorney.”
“Wrongful convictions can be avoided by better vetting of a potential jury. These false accusations and convictions are oftentimes confirmed by a jury. By assuring that a jury is completely free of bias and connection to the case and clients at hand, a more independent decision can be made. It is imperative that juries are chosen with the utmost discretion so that a person’s entire life is not upended based on incorrect information or biased perceptions about them.”
Kaitlyn Ward from University of Texas – Austin
“The largest challenges the modern criminal justice system faces today includes violence against women, the addiction epidemic, and lack of trust between peace officers and citizens. Some of these challenges can be resolved a bit easier than others.”
“Many times, women are too frightened or ashamed to come forward with their story of physical, sexual, or mental abuse. Bettering the relationship between communities and police could help more women come forward with their stories, which would aid in ending violence against women. Believing victims, gathering a clear understanding of consent, teaching and learning from the next generation, etc. are just a few of the other practices that can be utilized (UN Women). Though people may not see immediate change when applying these practices, they are making an impact.”
Angel Akujor from Western Governors University
“One of these is that changes in society are making it increasingly difficult for law enforcement to do their jobs both diligently and safely. There has been a noticeable uptake in violent crimes recently. In fact, data details that it has risen by nearly 30 percent in 2020 alone. However, despite this, law enforcement is still upheld to the standard of carrying themselves in the most professional manner possible. This, in an increasingly violent society, is very difficult and nearly dangerous.”
“The question now is, what can be done about it? As for the increase in the violence plaguing our nation, I’m afraid to say that it isn’t going anywhere. As a result, our law enforcement should be given enough grace and space to adapt. A lack of any adaptation whatsoever is not safe. Now, no one is advocating for an unnecessary amount of force to be applied by law enforcement. In fact, according to evidence, the best defense against the increase in violence is to create larger law enforcement. The job is stressful as is, not to mention the uptake in violence, having more law enforcers will go a long way.”
Dylan Rule from University of Kansas
“The next challenge faced in our criminal justice system is sexual violence, or violence in general, to women. According to the National Institute of Justice, about 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner each year, and stalking is more common than previously thought (NIJ 2022). The effectiveness of preventing such crimes toward women is simply lacking or non-existent in many ways. Additionally, a lack of trust in the justice system by women regarding reporting their victim status against their abuser is a persistent challenge faced by women that are victims of violence and abuse. Promoting gender equality to eliminate these dangers of abuse, harassment, trafficking, and other forms of crime would positively impact and benefit this challenge.”
Paige Harper from Old Dominion University
“The three largest challenges to the criminal justice system today are the mass incarceration of black and brown people, the injustice of black males and the insensitive nature of the police force. For law enforcements and prosecutors nationwide to even think about evidence-based solutions, they all need sensitivity training. There are quite a few things that can be done to encourage evidence-based solutions once they are thoroughly trained.”
Derrick Hobson from Perry Technical Institute
“I feel the most important and largest challenge the criminal justice system faces is mental illness. This subject is hard to talk about openly, but I feel it is very important to understand especially for the justice system. Not everyone’s brain functions the same, some people are born with mental disabilities or simply get diagnosed with age. This, along with drug use, can cause major issues for the justice system. I’ve seen videos on social media of the justice system failing to understand someone with a mental disability. I think the best way to shine light on this issue is proper training.”
Jerad Mullicane from Sonoma State University
“The high rate of recidivism, or the likelihood that an offender will re-offend, is one of the largest challenges to the criminal justice system today. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about three-quarters of released prisoners were rearrested within five Years.”
“More work needs to be done in combating recidivism by implementing a broader and more sophisticated series of programs that allow non-violent offenders the opportunity to gain skills necessary to succeed in civilian life. While the most apparent answer would be programs that offer trade skills such as carpentry and electrical, it cannot be understated the amount of psychological services that should be utilized as well. By addressing the psychological needs, the hope would be to reduce the impulses to re-offend and to encourage a more socially resilient and self deterministic population.”
Alexandria Currier from Kennesaw State University
“One of the strengths of the United States is the ability to hold an opinion; disagreement is allowed, but can prove difficult to implement under law. When legality becomes the subject of political correctness, it destroys the efficacy and authority of the legal system. Contradiction and overruling for the sake of opinion can produce confusion among law-abiding citizens and make it hard to engage with discussion and digestion of legal action; overall, it can create a lower desire to become involved in legal reform or even trust of the law.”
“When people believe they will not be protected or respected under the law, they often draw the conclusion that they must take matters into their own hands. Through personal righteousness, many Americans believe that they are entitled to their own interpretation of the law and its function. They may take a mentality of “revenge” or a justification for providing punishment for those deemed criminal. This denies the authority of the legal system to carry out justice and tarnishes the idea of fair and free trial. Without the ability to tell their side of the story, it also gives victims of self-proclaimed law enforcers reasons to have lower faith in the legal systems of the United States.”
Drew Eden from Utah State University
“The media and information sharing environment we find ourselves in today is drastically different from the one we were in only a couple decades ago. The changes in communication have brought with them a change in the courtroom, with many large trials being nationally broadcasted. This carries the danger of dramatizing real lives and issues, turning actual problems into nothing more than entertainment. Not to mention the influence national opinions can have on the jury themselves. I believe the only way to keep the corruption that a national broadcast brings out of our courtrooms, and keep our juries unbiased is by banning television coverage of the inside of a courtroom.”
Matraca Elling from Stony Brook University
“When individuals are not given the basic necessities for survival—including stable shelter, food supply, and consistent stream of income—the general inaccessibility of their day-to-day lives leaves the individual more likely to commit crimes, and this only gets worse when they are not able to afford representation and have to rely on public defenders, who are severely underfunded and always in shortage.”
“The lack of support for convicts is another larger problem within our country’s criminal justice system. According to an article on the Community Service Society by David R. Jones, with the 50,000 inmates that New York state releases, over 50% of them re-offend and/or are reconvicted and go back to prison within three years of their release. This is called recidivism. Convicts are another group that society strips of their humanity. When inmates are released from jail, they lose many rights. These include (but are not limited to) the right to vote, parental rights, and employment is significantly harder to find. These people tend to re-offend because there is no other way to reintegrate into society. They have no other ways of earning a living and often have very little education if any.”
Think you could write a winning essay? Join us for our next scholarship contest!
Thank you to everyone who participated in this year’s essay contest! If you missed this contest or would like to participate again in the next one, please check our scholarship page for all the details.
Students must be enrolled in college to be eligible. If you have any further questions concerning the contest, essay requirements or selection process, feel free to contact us. Good luck!