Prison Overcrowding: Causes and Solutions to Fix the Problem

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Prison overcrowding is a major problem in our criminal justice system and it continues to be a hotly debated topic as to how we should address the problem. One of the main reasons our prison systems have a problem with overcrowding is drugs. More specifically, the "war on drugs" started by President Reagan in 1982 brought a dramatic increase to the number of people put behind bars for drug offences. Mandatory minimum sentencing and truth in sentencing are two policies which have sent drug offenders to prison and kept them there for longer periods of time. The continuing crusade against drugs has apprehended hundreds of thousands of suspects who spend millions on drugs but the cost to incarcerate these non-violent offenders exceeds billions of dollars and much of that money is coming from the taxpayers' pockets. One way to address this problem is to reverse the current trend of putting first time, non-violent drug offenders in prison and instead sentence these offenders to boot camp and counselling combined with family support.

There are currently over two million people in our nation's state and federal prisons and jails. Nearly one and a half million of these offenders occupy state and federal prisons, serving over a year in detention for felonies.(1) The most alarming statistic is the fact that the United States houses twenty five percent of the world's inmates. A good percentage of these convicts are serving time for drug crimes, most of which are first time, non-violent offenders. Every year, many prisons throughout the country scramble to find appropriate housing for these extra prisoners, many of whom are there as a result of the mandatory minimum laws passed throughout the federal and state legislatures. By 1983, forty states had enacted some type of mandatory minimum sentencing act and in 1986 the Reagan administration successfully lobbied Congress to pass a federal law; the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. These laws came from the frustration experienced by the public and politicians who wanted to send a message to those spreading illegal drugs around in the neighbourhoods. The result has been profound as over twenty percent of state prisoners are incarcerated for drug offences and nearly fifty five percent of federal prisoners are serving time for drug offences. "All state and federal prisons are overcrowded -- some as much as 33 percent higher than their official capacities." (2) These overcrowded prisons are partly funded through the taxpayers' money. Although some people are willing to overlook the fact that they are paying a few extra dollars to keep "criminals" off the street, many taxpayers would be surprised at whom exactly is being "locked up."

"The processing of an offender through the corrections systems can run as high as twenty thousand dollars in direct costs." (3) With drug offenders occupying a large portion of both our federal and state prisons, it means that we are spending billions a year to incarcerate drug offenders. Much of the public, however, does not realize that many of these drug convicts are first time, non-violent offenders. They are forced accept plea deals or go to trial and the least amount of the time they can serve in many cases is five years. Low level dealers on the streets and small time users are arrested and sent to already crowded prisons with people who were dealt similar sentences. Prison administrators complain about a lack of space for new inmates and improvements. Although this is only natural, some fail to realize that as they continue to add more space to house convicts, there will always be a never-ending flow of offenders who are housed in these facilities. The cost of building a new prison is so costly and a good percentage of the probable inmates of a new prison would be first time offenders who are hardly the type that should be "locked away from society." "Legislatures typically estimate new prison construction costs at about seventy thousand per cell and thirty...
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