Prison overcrowding has been a continuous problem within our prison system, and a solution has yet to be assured. The amount of prisoners incarcerated behind bars has to be reduced and these changes will affect sentencing, and ultimately our society. Overcrowding at federal prisons is seriously jeopardizing the safety and security of guards and inmates. The ratio of guards to inmates is at about ten to one, and this is a major security risk for the correctional officers. Meanwhile, inmates are becoming hostile and violent because of current conditions in the prisons that force them to sleep on triple layer bunk beds and on floors in corridors. Alternatives to incarceration should be made in order to decrease the inclining number of prisoners, instead of having more prisons built.
So a general question on this tough issue is, why has the prison population risen tremendously within the past few decades? As a starting point, in the early 1970’s, the massive amount of crime in the United States concerned the public’s safety, which led to action being taken among legislators. “Some state governments began to construct new prison facilities and pass legislation mandating lengthy jail sentences for criminals,” according to Facts on File News Services(July 2009). Prison populations slowly began to grow as legislators kept passing “tough on crime” laws. In 1973, beginning in New York, Rockefeller drug laws came into play. These laws demanded judges to give out harsh prison sentences for drug possession, trafficking or use.
The United States incarceration rate has steadily increased due to enforcement of nationwide drug laws and tougher sentencing procedures. The great debate over prison overcrowding has lead to someone either being a supporter of tough sentencing, or an opponent. Supporters of tough sentencing believe that harsh punishment will discourage people from wanting to commit these crimes, meanwhile keeping our streets safer. They say more prisons should be built to accommodate the rising number of inmates within our prisons. On the other hand, opponents of tough sentencing believe alternatives to incarceration should be used to curb the prison population. They say the system was responsible for putting an exorbitant amount of non-violent offenders behind bars, meanwhile forcing states and the federal government to grapple with the task of constructing new prisons on limited budgets. According to Gregory Anthony, “the utmost visible reform would be to stop locking up so many people and start releasing those non-violent offenders.” Now, a primary problem that has been presented is the increasing length of time served in prison. The United States has the highest prison population in the industrialized world, and this is an outrage! According to Marc Mauer, “time served in state prison rose from 22 months to 29 months from 1990 to 1999.” Sentencing policies for crimes committed in the U.S are way too lengthy, in comparison with those from neighboring countries. Conviction in the United States for selling a kilogram of heroine is a mandatory ten year sentence; while in an England prison it would be a six month sentence. In the United States, burglary is a sixteen month sentence, whereas in England, it is a six month sentence. Time served should be lessened in the U.S., a start in the prevention of the dehumanization of our fellow Americans.
Another factor in the growth of the inmate population is the “Three Strike law”. The Three Strike law significantly increases the prison sentences of any person convicted of felonies who have been previously convicted of a violent or serious felony, and limits the ability of these offenders to receive a punishment other than a prison sentence. Recently, offenders being put back behind bars following the Three Strike law procedure, offense were either a probation violation or a non-violent offense, such as drug use. In line with Gregory Anthony, “stopping the overzealous enforcement of Three Strikes against people whose third strike was a lesser offense would free up valuable space.” These offenders, whose last strike was a minor non-violent offense, are serving up to twenty-five years in prison due to our laws. Many of the opponents of tough sentencing, feels as though the government has produced too many laws, and this is the primary reason of overcrowding in the prison system. In addition with the numerous amount of laws made, there are a prevalent amount of police officers entering the force each year. So unlike previous years, this enables officers to go after those tough crimes to solve that would take a lot of time, such as drug trafficking.
A major factor that has contributed to the recent increase in incarceration rates are the rates of recidivism. Recidivism is defined as the return of a parolee or previously incarcerated person back into the prison system within three years of their release. Most people believe that keeping someone in prison for a greater length of time, would have an effect on reducing recidivism. According to Marc Mauer, “there is no significant difference among people spending one to five years in prison.” Of the 600,000 prisoners released from prison each year, over two-thirds will return to prison within the first three years of their release. Non-violent offenses account for the dramatic increase in the prison system within the past two decades and currently make up nearly half of the prison population. In accordance with Gregory Anthony, “it is important to note that rates of maternal incarceration has increased parallel to the incarceration rates of non-violent offenders because most women are imprisoned for non-violent crimes, majority of the prisoners who return back to prison are non-violent offenders”(July 2006)
With prison overcrowding being such an urgent issue, quick fixes have to be made in order to somewhat tranquilize this dilemma. Some prisons began to transport their prisoners to different facilities where more space was available, but this solution is a short fix. With the majority of prisons having reached maximum capacity, some surpassing the capacity; another solution had to be made. Those non-violent inmates are now receiving early release dates from prison, along with good behavior. “More than 500,000 inmates of those serving time have been sentenced under mandatory drug sentencing laws, which accounts for about one fourth of the prison population,” according to Facts on File News Services. These inmates are now either on parole or probation, under supervision.
A major concern with the early release dates of prisoners, are the safety of our society. Would our streets remain safe, with those criminals coming back into the public? Confirming to The Christian Science Publishing Society, “a report released by the Pew Center on the States says more offenders could safely be supervised outside prison walls. States can carefully reduce incarceration and still protect, even improve public safety.” This report goes to show that alternatives to incarceration can be made, while our society still is protected. In addition, those interested in knowing the criminal background of another, are able to log on to online databases of criminal records, being able to know the offense of any offender who has been incarcerated within that state. Commensurate with Elizabeth Klug, “these website are beneficial to our citizens, being that they are able to learn if a convicted neighbor has returned home from prison, ultimately making society safer by the acknowledgement of these offenders.”(March 2001) So why not give authority to these alternatives to incarceration, instead of building more prisons to hold fellow Americans in cages like animals!
The cost of imprisonment in the United States has been a concern, especially in comparison with the costs of supervising offenders. A prisoner costs state governments an average of seventy-nine dollars a day, and even more if prison building costs are included. An offender on probation or parole costs about three to four dollars a day. That is such an enormous difference! According to The Christian Science Publishing Society, “The Pew Center on the States issued a report in March of 2009 that found it costs about twenty-two times more a day to keep someone behind bars than if they were on probation or on parole.” Most Americans aren’t aware of actually how much it costs to retain these prisoners behind bars, which in fact come out to be 25,000 a year. States are looking at supervision of non-violent offenders as a way to avoid these extreme costs to our taxpayers. They are also looking at other punishments, such as curfew and community service, for those offenders who miss a probation or parole meeting. Commonly, these appointments are missed because of high fees that are due, leading the offender to end up back behind a prison cell. Now on a deeper, extended level, why are so many Americans being put into situations that allow them to receive longer prison time? One answer to this question is the financial crisis of the economy. Times are at their hardest, and for those who don’t have anything, crime is their only way out. They feel the need to have to rob and steal from someone who has more than them, just to be able to maintain living in our society. Jobs are hard to find nowadays, so people look into the streets to provide their source of income. This is not an acceptable excuse by all means, but it has grown to be more common as the economy has worsened. Selling drugs have often become the norm amongst some Americans, because of the quick and easy money. In correlation, stealing has become a current trend because people can’t afford to actually go into these stores and buy the items for themselves. After inmates are released back into society, no one wants to hire them because of their criminal record. How can a person be expected to get out of prison and be able to survive legally, when employers won’t hire those with a felony? The release of these prisoners itself into today’s challenging economy presents a huge obstacle for them. Consistent with The Christian Science Publishing Society, “states will need to redouble their efforts to provide support systems for those reentering society.” States should help these former prisoners, or pave the way for them to be able to get out of prison, being on their feet, and not having to face such a struggle with housing and employment.
To conclude, prison overcrowding has been an upcoming, progressive quandary that awaits a resolution. Each year thousands of inmates are released, meanwhile hundreds arrive each day. So many solutions have arisen, and now lawmaker’s debate over which would be the most effective in reducing the prison population.