Jail Overcrowding

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

The article is about overcrowding in American jails and prisons.

Submitted: February 25, 2018

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Submitted: February 25, 2018



In recent times, correctional institutions in the United States have been confronted with the problem of overcrowding. The problem has been in existence since the 19th century and it has continued to affect the criminal justice system. Contrary to what many people and think and see on the outside, prison overcrowding has turned out to be more complex than previously thought. There are plenty of reasons that have led to increased population in American jails. Over the years, there have been debates on what the causes behind overcrowding are and how this problem can be alleviated. It is an open secret that inmate populations in correctional institutions have been increasing at an enormous rate. As a result, the prison system is in dire need of a reorganization. While it can be said that there has been a considerable improvement of prison conditions, one cannot fail to note that the modern-day correctional system is still working round the clock to alleviate the same problems that have been experienced in the past (Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, 2010). Perhaps it is important to explore the extent and nature of overcrowding in American jails, and possible solutions that can help to eradicate this problem.

Before identifying the solutions that would help to eradicate overcrowding in correctional institutions, it is important to analyze the reasons that have led to the emergence of this problem. Profit motive is one of the main causes of prison overcrowding. The culture of making profits has infiltrated the society to the extent that it affects the correctional system as well. Private entities are provided with state and counties contracts for canteens, provision of meals, medical services, clothing, and so forth. However, for these entities to generate profits, there must be growth in inmate population. After all, profits cannot be generated from empty cells. Mandatory minimum sentencing is another cause for prison overcrowding. This law was put in place with the aim of eliminating bias in sentencing. Nevertheless, the law has only served the purpose of overcrowding jails and prisons since judges and administrators do not have the liberty to lessen the census by releasing inmates with minor offences.

Unaffordable bails have also played a part in increasing inmate population. Majority of people in prisons and jails across the country are low-income earners; hence, they are unable to raise bail especially if it is beyond their means. Therefore, it is imperative to grant suspects reasonable bail so as to avoid locking them behind bars while awaiting trial. Prison population will continue to increase as long as the court system continues to over-work, underpay, and over-burden public defenders (McShane, 2012). More often than not, public defenders are demoralized to the extent that they are unable to put in place a vigorous defense. Poverty is also part of the reasons that have led to overcrowding in American jails and prisons. Since many people do not have access to resources, they often seek refuge in the underground economy, a trend that ends up creating prisoners. Some of the reasons that have led to increased levels of poverty include slashing of welfare rolls, funding cuts of social services, elimination of relief programs, and policy changes in social services.

It is worth noting that a crowded prison is likely to affect the psychological improvement of inmates because many are times they are upset with the unhealthy state of the correctional facilities. Moreover, inmates who are locked up in overcrowded prisons are likely to be deprived of resources. The fact that prisons do not have access to essential resources due to overcrowding is a situation that might prove to have a devastating outcome on the part of the prisoners. Research studies have revealed that overcrowding in correctional institutions is a problem that is characterized by undesirable effects. An overcrowded correctional institution is likely to be a catalyst for aggression, incidents of illness, increased rates of suicide, and competition for limited resources.

Having analyzed the causes that lead to overcrowding in American jails and prisons, it is important to explore the solutions that might help to reduce or eliminate the severity of this problem. The problem is in dire need of workable solutions because as long as it continues to persist, it puts the lives of corrections officers and inmates in imminent danger. The need to come up solutions that will help to reduce prison overcrowding is an issue that has attracted the attention of politicians from both political divides. The politicians are in agreement that it cannot be business as usual and that something needs to be done.

According to Knafo (2013), one of the solutions that can help to address prison overcrowding is by ensuring that people arrested for non-violent crimes are not necessarily sent to prison. It is estimated that the federal prisons system is home to more than 250,000 inmates in comparison to 25,000 inmates in 1980. Half of these inmates are often locked up for drug offenses. Therefore, it is imperative for the Justice Department to ensure that people who have been apprehended for non-violent crimes do not end up spending years locked up in federal prisons. In fact, the Justice Department should direct prosecutors to reduce the number of non-violent cases in federal courts. Research studies have established that if judges and prosecutors reduce the number of offenders sent to prison by 20 percent, the taxpayer stands to save a whopping $1.29 billion.

To reduce prison overcrowding, the Justice Department should consider the idea of not slapping drug offenders with longer sentences. It is important for the Justice Department to determine why so many people are locked up behind bars due to drug-related charges. To get to the bottom of this matter, perhaps the Justice Department might consider reviewing the laws that provide room for mandatory-minimum sentencing. The laws often require a judge to send drug offenders to prison for a period ranging from 5 years to 20 years. Before the advent of the mandatory-minimum sentencing law, 25 percent of federal drug offenders were sentenced to probation or they were ordered to pay a fine. However, this is not the case anymore as 95 percent of federal drug offenders end up behind bars.  

There is a need to encourage judges to adopt the culture of discretion over sentencing. The current law allows judges to deviate from the protocol of minimum sentences. For a judge to spare defendants from the wrath of minimum sentences, they need to be sure that the defendant has a clean criminal record or they had only been found guilty of a nonviolent crime. Furthermore, it is imperative to increase the “safety valve” so as to ensure that offenders who happen to have greater criminal histories, but do not pose any danger to the public are sentenced to probation (Walsh, 2013). The potential of this solution is that it will save the federal government $544 million.

There are plenty of people serving prison sentences after they were disproportionately punished for being in possession of crack. Many of these people were sentenced before the enactment of The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The Act sought to reduce the disparity between powder cocaine and crack punishments. Therefore, the government should consider extending the benefits of this law to those people who were convicted and sent to prison for many years before this law came into existence.

It is possible to reduce overcrowding in correctional institutions only if the government would consider the idea of releasing elderly prisoners. More often than not, people who are released from prison at the age of 55 and above are likely not to engage themselves in criminal activities that would send them back to prison. However, the federal prisons are still home to more than 20,000 people who have clocked 55 years and above. Releasing some of these people even before they complete their sentences will go a long way in reducing inmate population. In addition, correctional institutions in the U.S. are home to more than 60,000 prisoners who happen not to be U.S. citizens (Clear et al, 2016). As a result, there is a need for the government to put in place a program that will see a huge chunk of foreign prisoners imprisoned in their home countries. Such a move will help to decongest federal and state prisons.

Overcrowding in federal and state prisons can be eradicated if at all the government reviews the current law which requires every prisoner to serve not less than 85 percent of the time they have been sentenced. Since there is a need to reduce inmate population, the law can be amended and offenders will only be required to see out 70 percent of their sentences.

In conclusion, it is evident that prison overcrowding is a problem that has continued to affect America’s prison system. The problem is a culmination of various reasons such as profit motive, unaffordable bails, overburdened public defenders, mandatory minimum sentencing, and poverty. Just like any other problem, there are solutions that would help to alleviate prison overcrowding and in the process, federal and state governments would end up saving millions of dollars. In the long run, the need to reduce inmate population is aimed at creating a conducive environment that will help the remaining prisoners to see out their sentences, and to ensure that they emerge as better people.

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