For very practical reasons, and with very serious real-world ramifications, the biggest issue currently facing the American corrections system is prison overcrowding. Despite only making up 5-percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for approximately 25-percent of its entire prison population, making it the nation with the highest incarceration rates and the most overcrowded prisons in the world (Caldwell, 2012). Despite a slight decline in the prison populations of state-run facilities seen very recently, there continues to be a steady increase in the amount of inmates serving time at federal prisons, amounting to an astounding 700-percent increase in the overall prison population since 1970 (Caldwell, 2012). Interestingly enough, as prisons continue to operate at levels upwards of 45-percent over capacity, approximately 48-percent of all individuals incarcerated are a result of drug offenses (McLaughlin, 2012). In turn, increases in government spending on prisons have far outpaced even that of its spending on higher education (Caldwell, 2012).
Aside from the burden prison overcrowding places on the wallets and purses of American taxpayers, those charged with the duty of guarding these overcrowded institutions and the individuals themselves who make up its population are both at substantially higher risks for suffering harm. The increased level of tension that is created by overcrowded prisons has been seen to cause increases in the amount of inmate attacks on officers and on fellow inmates (TASA Group, 2010). At the same time, as more money goes towards incarcerating more inmates, less goes towards hiring corrections officers, exacerbating the already problematic inmate-to-guard ratio seen even at prisons operating below capacity (McLaughlin, 2012). Researchers continue to warn that as the overcrowding problem becomes increasingly worse, it also becomes increasingly more likely that its effects will “ripple outside prison walls,” threatening the safety and well-being of the United States’ general population (McLaughlin, 2012, para. 13).
In the past, states have attempted to remedy this overwhelming problem in corrections by trying to simply just release inmates back into the general population, but the result has largely been that most released inmates ended up committing a crime that sent them back to jail a short time after their release (Moore, 2009). Instead, solving the issue of jail overcrowding requires an overhaul of the way that our judicial and correctional systems deal with crime and criminal behavior, namely in how criminal sentences are handed out and how offenders are currently “rehabilitated,” if they really even are at all. With that being said, the policies and actions of these two entities are almost entirely dependent on those of a third: the legislature. As such, a two-pronged, multipart effort must be launched by federal and state legislative bodies, implemented by officials of the courts, and ultimately carried out by corrections officers and administrators, so that this issue in corrections can be truly corrected rather than just merely dealt with.
The first prong of this effort to fix America’s overcrowded prison system calls for four main legislative alterations geared towards changing our system’s current sentencing policies and processes, which will function with the purpose of keeping people out of jail in the first place. First and foremost, habitual-offender laws like the three strikes policy must either be fixed or eliminated entirely so that minor crimes do not result in people being locked up for life just because it happened to be their third strike (Sethi, 2012). One cure would be to follow the lead of California, which revised its three strikes law to require that third offenses be either violent or serious (as defined by state law) to result in life sentences (Staples, 2012). Secondly, reformation of our system’s current misdemeanor laws and/or the punishments attached to them must be ushered in, and should be based around the notion that imprisoning people for committing nonviolent crimes often does more harm than good for society on the whole (Sethi, 2012). Specifically, drug courts, and their model of preferring problem-solving treatments over punishments, should be expanded and utilized to a much greater extent (National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 2012). The third alteration is rather cut-and-dry, as it simply involves cutting back on the amount of people who are detained in prisons while waiting for their trials (Sethi, 2012). Since the purpose of pretrial detention is to combat the flight risk of defendants and protect the public from potential violence they may cause, instead of adding to the prison overcrowding problem by detaining nonviolent defendants they should be assigned with GPS monitoring bracelets when their judge-issued parole or bond cannot be met. The fourth way is to change the penalties for parole and probation violations to non-prison sentences (Sethi, 2012). Just like reforming the laws and sentencing structures for misdemeanors, the responses here should be focused more on rehabilitation than punishment.
Of course, even with these changes in place, there will still be a substantial population of individuals who are unable to avoid incarceration. Thus, the second prong of this effort to correct prison overcrowding must focus on rehabilitation as well, but be geared towards providing legitimate treatment for individuals who are currently incarcerated or will be incarcerated in the future. As noted above, nearly half of the entire U.S. prison population is incarcerated on drug offenses, and drugs often fueled the criminal behaviors that landed many of the others in prison as well. Yet even still, the addictions and social influences that serve as the underlying causes for most of these individuals involvement with drugs remain largely unaddressed and untreated. As a result, the problem of prison overcrowding cannot be fixed unless the same people, who continue to be incarcerated for the same reasons, receive different rehabilitation than they are currently receiving.
- Caldwell, M. (2012, Dec. 11). Overcrowding in prisons: Mass incarceration epidemic. Allegiant. Retrieved from http://theallegiant.com/overcrowding-in-prisons/
- McLaughlin, M. (2012, September 14). Overcrowding in federal prisons harms inmates, guards: GAO report. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/14/prison-overcrowding-report_n_1883919.html
- Moore, S. (2009, February 10). The prison overcrowding fix. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/11/us/11prisons.html?_r=0
- National Criminal Justice Reference Service. (2012, September 25). In the spotlight: Drug courts. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/spotlight/drug_courts/summary.html
- Sethi, A. (2012, January 18). Four ways to relieve overcrowded prisons. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2012/0118/Four-ways-to-relieve-overcrowded-prisons
- Staples, B. (2012, November 24). California horror stories and the 3-strikes law. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/opinion/sunday/california-horror-stories-and-the-3-strikes-law.html?_r=0
- TASA Group. (2010). Law enforcement and corrections: Overcrowded prisons and officer safety. Technical Advisory Service for Attorneys: Knowledge Center. Retrieved from http://www.tasanet.com/knowledgeCenterDetails.aspx?docTypeID=1&docCatID=67&docID=314