“Overcrowding in Americas Prison System” ABSTRACT In the early years of this country flogging, exile, branding, and the “stocks” were some of the ways used to punish a guilty offender. Today, though, these types of punishments would quickly be labeled as cruel and unusual forms of retribution. Since we can no longer utilize such forms of punishment, the criminal justice system has turned to; imprisonment, probation, fines, and even the death penalty to help and deter offenders from a life of crime. As the prison population continues to rise in this country health and safety questions rise as well.
Not only for the prisoner but for also for the guards that are there to watch over and protect the inmates. It is time to ask some very important questions regarding sentencing alternatives including; “Do we rely too much on the prison system”, “Are there better ways to punish some crimes? ” and probably most importantly, “Does prison truly act as a deterrent to crime? ” The Bureau of Justice’s statistics in the recent years have shown a dramatic increase in the prison population which has led to a large amount of United States prisons being overcrowded.
State prisons, on the average, are 16 percent over their capacity with Federal prisons holding an average of 38 percent more inmates than their original construction capacity. (Bureau of Justice) Overcrowding, though, is just part of the problem. Many of the prisons in America today are rundown and substandard. Inadequate security is also an issue, often times lacking the personnel to keep the inmates safe from assaults and other violations. For years, it has been the belief of the American public, politicians, and criminal justice authorities that crime rates in this country were just too large.
It has also been the general consensus that in order to stop the rising crime rates, there had to be a great push in the severity of sentencing in the courtroom. Mostly this was done by way of utilizing the maximum sentence for a crime in hopes of deterring others and decreasing the amount of recidivism. One other method was to impose a minimum sentence for certain nonviolent crimes including; driving while intoxicated, drug offenses, child molestation, spousal abuse, and sexual assault. “Over the past three decades, the United States has built the world’s largest prison system.
This system is ten times larger today than it was in the mid-1970s. ” (Lynch, 2007)As America’s prison population has grown there has been a lot of debate on whether or not prison is working. Arguably, all intents and purposes of a prison system are to deter crime. The hopes of our criminal justice system, all of its judges, lawyers, and even the American people is that either someone will not commit an offense with fear of going to prison or that if they do, they will not do it again once they have stepped foot inside a correctional institution.
Is this the case? Do prisons in fact act as deterrents and reduce crime rates? Lynch goes on his book after a review of several studies on the effects of prison as a deterrent to say, “While sentencing reforms seemed to reduce crime, they did so only by substantially increasing the size of the incarcerated population. In light of this observation, and in an effort to avoid the problem of extensive prison growth, the use of selective incapacitation strategies that carefully target specific kinds of offenders may be of the more benefit. (Lynch, 2007) Michael Jacobson is a former Commissioner of Probation for the City of New York, appointed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, supports the fact that the use of prisons may not be the deterrent we have been hoping for and is best suited for the most violent of offender. In his book, “Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration” Jacobson explains; After all is said and done, the number of people in the U. S. jails and prisons-almost 2. 2 million at the time of this writing-reflects a public policy gone mad.
Prisons and especially long prison sentences should be reserved for the most violent among us. There is no need to lock away for years hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders or to keep people in prison well past their crime-committing years, effectively turning some prisons into the equivalent of secure nursing homes. (Jacobson, 2005) It is easy to see that the use of harsh sentencing guidelines does not necessarily have the effect that it once was thought to have. Not only that ut now we are using and already overcrowded prison system to punish minor crimes and to house parole violators. What is the cost of such action? The answer simply put? Way to high. Over the years, the costs of running a prison have increased dramatically. Today, it can cost well over $75,000 to build a single cell and over $25,000 to house a prisoner for a year. Let’s put this in an even better prospective by saying that, in today’s society, it could cost well over $330 million to build and run a 500 cell prison over a period of 30 years.
If a state struggling to run a prison has to obtain money, where does it come from? More and more states are starting to shift funds from their higher education departments. If states are taking money away from schools to fund prisons, it may be time for a change. There has to be to reduce the American criminal justice system’s use of prison. Community corrections legislators believe that there are several alternatives to prison from which the court can choose from. One of the most popular types of intermediate sanctions is, of course, probation.
Probation is used in lieu of incarceration and affords the offender the ability to be supervised in their community by a probation officer who works as an agent of the court. Other types come in the form of; house arrest, electronic monitoring, shock probation (boot camps), intensive supervision, day-reporting centers, community service, fines, restitution, and forfeiture. To make intermediate sanctions work and to decrease the reliability on the prison system, there has to be a change in the sentencing guidelines for some crimes. We can no longer look to prison to punish every crime that an offender may commit.
Drug offenses, theft related crimes, driving while intoxicated, parole violations, and other nonviolent crimes need to be handled in the community with a combination of the intermediate sanctions mentioned earlier. Michael Tonry, in his book, “Intermediate Sanctions in Sentencing Guidelines” supports this conclusion, “For offenders who do not present unacceptable risks of violence, well-managed intermediate sanctions offer a cost-effective way to keep them in the community at less cost than imprisonment and with no worse later prospect for criminality. ” (Tonry, 1998)
While prison has been leaned on for many years as a way to deter crime and to punish offenders of the American criminal justice system, the increase reliability has led to a very dangerous and expensive prison system. Overcrowding has led to violence, health concerns, and substandard prison conditions. It is now time that we look to other means to punish offenders who are not a great threat to society. Through the use of intermediate sanctions, I believe that America can lower its prison population while at the same time punish offenders of state and federal laws. Bibliography Anderson, D. 1998). Sensible Justice: Alternaives to Prison. New Press. Bureau of Justice. (n. d. ). Bureau of Justice. Retrieved 03 09, 2011, from www. ojp. usdoj. gov/bjs Jacobson, M. (2005). Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration. NYU Press. Jusitce, B. o. (2010). Bureau of Justice. Lynch, M. (2007). Big, Prisons, Big Dreams: Crime and the Failure of America’s Penal System. Rutgers University Press. Paulus, P. (1988). Prison Overcrowding: A Psychological Perspective. Springer-Verlag. Tonry, M. (1998). Intermediate Sanctions in Sentencing Guidelines. Oxford University Press. .