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Throughout U.S. history nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have played a decisive role in correctional reform and the evolution of the penal system. As governmental control of the justice system has grown, NGOs have continued to exert a large influence on public policy decisions that involve the corrections system; indeed, their role has increased in the last quarter century.
Historical Role of Nongovernmental Organizations
The Pennsylvania Prison Society was founded in 1787 in Philadelphia with the goals of improving the conditions of prisons and humanizing the treatment of prison inmates. Leaders of the society were Quaker clergy who sought to reduce the use of corporal punishment in prisons and jails. They tried to reframe corrections as a religious experience in which convicts could seek expiation for their sins through Bible reading and contemplation of their misdeeds. The society was successful in promoting the use of ‘‘separate and solitary’’ confinement as a novel penal method to achieve their philosophic objectives (Barnes). Most prisons at the end of the eighteenth century had congregate living situations in which inmates worked in jail-based workshops. Pennsylvania Prison Society members felt that congregate living contributed to prisons becoming ‘‘schools for crime’’ where more criminally sophisticated convicts recruited younger ones for their criminal exploits. The Philadelphia Quakers also believed that solitary contemplation of God could lead to genuine individual reformation.
During the early part of the nineteenth century the so-called Philadelphia System of separate and solitary confinement competed with the older congregate system as the dominant penal approach. French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America to study the two approaches and make recommendations on correctional practices to European governments (Beaumont and Tocqueville).
Over time the system of congregate imprisonment became more popular, and was more amenable to efforts to create industrial enterprises behind the walls (Rusche and Kirchheimer). Ironically, separate and solitary confinement, initially advocated as a humanitarian reform, became one of the principal methods of disciplining recalcitrant convicts in lieu of corporal punishment.
Today the Pennsylvania Prison Society remains a leading proponent of enlightened responses in corrections. The society continues to advocate for programs that assist prisoners and their families during the period of incarceration, and pushes for programs that help offenders reintegrate into the community. The Pennsylvania Prison Society operates a range of educational programs for the general public and attempts to depoliticize the debate on criminal justice policy. As America entered the nineteenth century, concern was growing over the common practice of holding children in jails and adult workhouses. Another NGO, the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, stepped forward to transform the justice system. Founded in New York City this NGO, later renamed the Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency (SPJD), lobbied for the establishment of the first specialized penal institution for youngsters in the United States. The SPJD argued that pauperism led to delinquent behavior, and that the cure was to remove children from inadequate parents or the streets and place them in institutions known as houses of refuge. The first such institution was opened in New York City in 1825 (Pickett).
The house of refuge was to be the combination of a school and a prison that was operated by a private, charitable agency. Wayward youths were educated, but within an unwavering daily regimen that emphasized worship, work, and discipline. Upon release these young inmates were generally placed as indentured servants. Youths were often ‘‘rescued’’ forcibly and placed in the houses of refuge by members of the SPJD. When parents of the ‘‘rescued’’ youths complained to the legal system that they had been deprived of their property rights to control their children, the courts often supported the SPJD to save children from dire living circumstances (Mennel).
The leadership of the SPJD consisted of prominent religious leaders who were frightened over the growth of a large, urban, immigrant underclass that they believed would threaten democracy. They asserted that the practice of placing children in adult facilities increased the chances that these children would be recruited into criminal lives. Moreover, the SPJD claimed that juries were acquitting guilty youths rather then sending them to prisons and jails. The SPJD lobbied for the establishment of more houses of refuge in most American cities.
Despite the very effective propaganda campaign of the SPJD, the houses of refuge encountered many problems. These facilities were plagued with violence, riots, and large numbers of absconders. Robert Mennel, a historian of the houses estimated that 40 percent of the inmates ran away. The Catholic Church criticized that youngsters were not allowed to practice their religion. Others charged that the private contractors who ran the work programs in the houses of refuge were brutally exploiting the young wards.
As scandals surrounding the houses of refuge mounted, government agencies were forced to inspect these private facilities, and in some cases converted them to state-run institutions. Another influential NGO, the Children’s Aid Society, engaged in the public policy debate and offered a very different solution to the growing problem of youth criminality. Founded by Charles Loring Brace, the Children’s Aid Society set out to rescue impoverished children from urban streets, providing food, clothing, and temporary shelter to wayward youth. But, Brace and his followers also criticized the houses of refuge, which they believed were criminogenic. The Children’s Aid Society pioneered the practice of ‘‘placing out’’ urban children with farm families in the Midwest and the West. Brace believed that the American farm family embodied all of the best virtues of the nation, and held out great hope for rehabilitating urban youngsters (Mennel). Critics of the ‘‘placing out’’ strategy claimed that children were sometimes exploited by the farm families, and there were concerns that brothers and sisters who had been separated might never see one another again. Proponents of the houses of refuge and of ‘‘placing out’’ battled for public acceptance for the next several decades.
The growing concern about scandals and abuses in correctional facilities led to the establishment, in 1870, of the National Prison Association (later renamed the American Correctional Association, or ACA). The first head of the ACA was former U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes. At its inaugural meeting the ACA put forth a progressive agenda for reforming the nation’s prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities. Seeking to develop ethical and professional standards for the field, the ACA became the major source of training materials, professional recognition, and resources for practitioners. The organization later sought to provide accreditation for correctional programs. Today the ACA is the largest professional group in the corrections field. Its annual meetings are attended by over four thousand members, although some have expressed concern that the association has become overly dependent on the financial largesse of businesses that sell products to the corrections system.
Toward the close of the nineteenth century, influential NGOs such as the Chicago Women’s Club and the Chicago Bar Association lobbied to create a special legal system for children, and in 1899 helped enact the Illinois Juvenile Court Act, the first comprehensive child welfare law in U.S. history. Famous leaders of these groups, especially Julia Lathrop, Lucy Flowers, and Jane Addams, practically invented the modern profession of social work in the United States. These child welfare pioneers raised funds to sponsor some of the earliest research on juvenile delinquency.
The Illinois law spawned a juvenile court movement that spread quickly across the nation. One key component of these laws was the establishment of probation officers to supervise wayward youths in the community. The actual invention of probation in the last quarter of the nineteenth century is generally credited to a Boston shoemaker, John Augustus, who would post bail for adults and juveniles, promising to personally supervise them and assure their appearance in court. Interestingly, the first juvenile court laws specified that probation officers should not be paid, but were instead directed to volunteer their services.
In 1901 Chicago became the founding city for the U.S. version of the John Howard Association. Named for the eighteenth-century British penal reformer, the John Howard Association ( JHA) organized citizens who were concerned about the abhorrent conditions in Illinois prisons and jails. The JHA initiated the practice of citizen visits to penal facilities to monitor the conditions of confinement and to investigate grievances made by inmates. The JHA expanded its mission to push for rational sentencing policies and to provide educational programs for the public.
In 1907, a group of fourteen probation officers met at Plymouth Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to create the National Probation Association, which later became the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD). This new NGO attempted to establish professional standards for the education and training of probation officers, advocating that probation officers be paid court staff. The NCCD then lobbied to enact state laws permitting the use of community supervision, both probation and parole, in lieu of sentences of imprisonment (Krisberg). The NCCD assumed the mantle as the major organization trying to reform the juvenile justice system, focusing on removing children from jails and creating standards for the juvenile court. Later the NCCD helped organize the nation’s business leaders in behalf of progressive reforms of the justice system. Today the NCCD specializes in research, training, and advocacy on sensible responses to juvenile crime and safe alternatives to incarceration for adult offenders.
Two other notable NGOs that were founded in the early part of the twentieth century are the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The ACLU was founded by noted lawyer Roger Baldwin in 1920. Its mission is to protect and promote the Bill of Rights. This overarching goal has led the ACLU to be a forceful advocate against ‘‘cruel and unusual’’ punishments, and to fight for the protection of the rights of the accused, as well as guarding the due process rights of institutionalized persons. The AFSC was established in 1917 as a vehicle for conscientious objectors to aid civilian victims during World War I. AFSC members have participated in a broad range of international and domestic human rights issues. They have worked to protect the rights of incarcerated persons, and they have exposed what they believe to be inhumane correctional practices. In 1972, the AFSC published Struggle for Justice, which provided a compelling case for the replacement of indeterminant sentencing with a system of fixed (and determinant) sentencing.
More Recent Sentencing Reforms and Ngos
The pace of new NGOs that have taken up the cause of sentencing corrections reform has not slowed over the last several decades. These groups have aggressively pursued litigation on behalf of prisoners’ rights, raised awareness about the human rights violations committed by the U.S. justice system, and campaigned against mandatory prison sentences.
In 1961 Lois Schweitzer established the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City. The Vera Institute took on the issue of crowding in jails, and through its Manhattan Bail Project tested new methods by which indigent defendants could be released from jail without having to make large payments to bail bondsmen. The research promulgated by Vera led to a nationwide movement to create pretrial service agencies to allow poor people with community ties to effect release on their own recognizance. The Vera Institute has also launched a number of demonstration projects proving the public safety of a variety of alternatives to incarceration. The institute works closely with New York City government to initiate innovative service programs for drug addicts, the homeless, and mentally ill offenders.
An outgrowth of the ACLU, the National Prison Project (NPP) launched a successful effort to advance the constitutional rights of prisoners. NPP lawsuits led to numerous legal orders and agreements to improve the conditions of confinement and to protect the rights of prisoners. The work of the NPP caused many states to end the practice of double- and triple-celling inmates, thus creating the need either to consider alternatives to incarceration or to construct costly new prisons. In the juvenile arena, the Youth Law Center and the National Center for Youth Law filed lawsuits challenging conditions of confinement in youth corrections facilities. In particular, these juvenile litigation groups focused on the horrendous practice of holding children in adult jails. Besides litigation, all three of these NGOs have produced resource materials and conducted training for correctional practitioners to teach them how to avoid further legal actions.
Human Rights Watch was formed in 1978 in Helsinki in response to complaints about human rights violations taking place in Soviet bloc nations. The group set out to monitor and support the provisions of the historic Helsinki Accords. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan argued that human rights violations in democratic nations were more ‘‘tolerable’’ than violations occurring in totalitarian counties. Human Rights Watch/ America was founded to counteract this thinking. Human Rights Watch has produced a series of investigative reports pointing to human rights violations in areas such as capital punishment, the use of super maximum security prisons, and the growing practice of sentencing children to adult prisons. Human Rights Watch has assisted community organizing efforts in the United States, and has raised international consciousness about grave problems of the American criminal law system.
An interesting recent NGO is Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). Founded in 1991, FAMM was created by family members of persons who were sentenced to extremely long mandatory prisons terms, often for relatively minor drug offenses. FAMM conducts public education efforts, and actively opposes tougher penalties at the state and federal level. FAMM has worked to gain clemency for those serving unduly harsh sentences. A related group is Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), which is a nationwide advocacy group that opposes the death penalty, looks for creative alternatives to incarceration, and fights for the humane treatment of inmates. CURE includes a diverse membership, including exoffenders and the families of current prison inmates. In 2000 CURE organized a voter registration drive for inmates of the Baltimore City Jail to dramatize the disenfranchisement of offenders. Another goal for CURE is to make telephones more accessible to inmates and to lower the cost of the phone calls, so that incarcerated persons can stay in touch with their families.
NGOs have played a major and significant role in the evolution of the American justice system. Indeed, some have argued that most of the truly significant reforms have been energized and pushed by groups outside the formal governmental channels (Sutton). The last several decades have witnessed the continued creation and growth of NGOs devoted to the causes of sentencing and corrections reform. These groups operate with modest funding derived from private philanthropy and public memberships. Some NGOs have been successful at attracting limited governmental funding in jurisdictions in which progressive criminal justice professionals have sought their assistance.
While he was studying American prisons in the early nineteenth century, Tocqueville commented on the vibrancy of civic life, and on the fact that Americans were always forming new voluntary associations to improve their communities. He believed that these voluntary groups or NGOs were essential to preserving American democracy. The NGOs that have focused on justice issues have certainly contributed to a lively debate and struggle for those core American principles that are celebrated the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Without the efforts of NGOs the justice system might easily embrace pragmatic and expedient policies, regardless of the threats to human and civil rights. Not all of the reforms introduced by the NGOs stood the test of time, but these organizations continue to press for innovations, and for greater humanity in our treatment of wayward youth and adult lawbreakers.
- American Friends Service Committee. Struggle for Justice. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
- BARNES, HARRY ELMER. The Repression of Crime. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1926.
- BEAUMONT, GUSTAVE, and TOCQUEVILLE, ALEXIS DE. On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France (1833). Translated by Francis Leiber. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979.
- KRISBERG, BARRY. ‘‘The Evolution of an American Institution.’’ Crime and Delinquency 44, no. 1 (1988): 5–8.
- MENNEL, ROBERT Thorns and Thistles: Juvenile Delinquents in the United States, 1825–1940. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1973.
- PICKET, ROBERT Houses of Refuge: Origins of Juvenile Reform in New York State, 1815–1857. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University, 1969.
- RUSCHE, GEORG, and KIRCHHEIMER, OTTO. Punishment and Social Structure. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.
- SUTTON, JOHN Stubborn Children: Controlling Delinquency in the United States, 1640–1981. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
- TOCQUEVILLE, ALEXIS DE. Democracy in America (1835, 1840). Translated by Henry Reeve. Cambridge, U.K.: Sever and Francis, 1862. Revised by Francis Bowen and Philips Bradley. New York: Vintage Books, 1945, 1961.