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This paper is based on the topic of overcrowding in prisons. It seeks to explore the topic by looking at ways of solving the problem of overcrowding in prisons. It is argued that the problem cannot be solved by building more prisons alone but rather, building more prisons is just one of the many solutions to the problem. The paper uses the United States (US) as an example to provide figures and facts about the topic. Various sources are used such as books, websites, and journals.
What is Overcrowding in Prisons?
It refers to a situation in which there is a higher supply of prisoners than the capacity of the prisons in a given country. When prisoners are convicted, they are sentenced for a certain period of time, after which they are released. They may also be released on other grounds such as presidential pardoning, old age or on medical grounds.
Under normal circumstances, the rate at which prisoners are released should be the same as the rate at which new prisoners are convicted. However, it is not usually the case since in many cases; the rate at which prisoners are released is far much lower than the rate at which others are convicted. The end result is usually overcrowding in prisons.
Overcrowding leads to poor sanitation and lack of healthcare in prisons. Other problems related to overcrowding include increased violence among inmates and stress both to inmates and prison staff. Overcrowding also means that governments spend more of tax payers’ money in keeping the prisoners in the prisons, a situation which negatively affects the economy.
How big is the Problem of Overcrowding in Prisons?
Many people tend to think that overcrowding in prisons is caused by increase in crime rates. However, this kind of thinking is far from the truth because research has shown that overcrowding comes as a result of various failures by the criminal justice systems. Such failures may mean that the criminal justice systems are reactive instead of being proactive. When they are reactive, they only respond to problems when they occur.
Various studies have been done on the problem of overcrowding in prisons. Most of them have found that the problem is actually a global one because it cuts across all the economies, the poor and the rich alike. The reason why the problem is so serious is because many governments do not do proper analysis of the problem and how it may affect their countries.
Actually, majority of governments are preoccupied with protection of citizens to the extent of failing to balance between the cost of protecting citizens and the cost of overcrowding in prisons. If governments do a proper analysis of the problem, then they could be able to handle it in a sober manner and bring it to an end once and for all.
To illustrate how big the problem of overcrowding in prisons is, I will use the US as a case study. In the US, research has shown that majority of prisoners are convicted of nonviolent drug related offenses. The US is considered as a super power of the world in terms of military, political, economic, and cultural prowess.
It is not known for inability to solve problems. However, when it comes to the problem of overcrowding in prisons, the US is among countries which are adversely affected by the problem. The problem is so serious that in 2007, the state of California declared it as a state of emergency (Taylor, 2008).
In 2013, over seven of the 52 states had over 25% above their normal capacity in their prisons with some states like Alabama registering over 190% above their capacity. If these statistics are anything to go by, then the problem should not only be seen as a regional but as a global problem just like terrorism and economic recession. The real solution to the problem therefore is not to build more prisons but to understand, analyze, and interpret the problem correctly.
It is only then a lasting solution could be found because countries would be able to assist each other in dealing with the problem. However, that is not to mean that there are no solutions to the problem. Many researchers have investigated the issue of overcrowding in prisons especially in the US and have provided various solutions which if properly implemented could reduce the problem with a huge percentage.
Solutions to the Problem of Overcrowding in Prisons
As mentioned in the introduction, building more prisons is just one of the many solutions to the problem of overcrowding in prisons. If the government could expand the capacity of prison beds and space, then it may succeed albeit in a small way to deal with the problem. Having more prisons means that the government should not only acquire more land to build new prisons but it should also convert space which is idle into prisons.
Another suggestion is to consider redesigning the prisons by converting them to tall buildings. By so doing, governments may be able to maximize the available land and reduce congestion in the prisons.
However, the challenge could arise when there are no funds for expansion or when the expansion is not a priority. In such cases, there is need for the civil society to be vigilant and force governments to expand the prisons so as to safeguard the rights of inmates and enable them to enjoy a good environment during incarceration (Hough, Allen & Solomon, 2008).
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As mentioned earlier, the huge percentage of prisoners in the US are those charged with drug related offenses. However majority of the cases are usually nonviolent in nature and as such, they do not necessarily require the offenders to be put behind bars. Since the year 1980, the number of prisoners who were jailed in US federal jails increased from 25,000 to over 200,000 in 2013. Over half of these were jailed for drug offenses. That is to mean if the number of inmates convicted of drug offenses was to be reduced by half, then it would reduce the number of prisoners by a quarter.
There is also the need of sentencing nonviolent drug offenders for shorter jail terms so that they do not overstay in prisons. But the 1986 law requires judges to sentence drug offenders to jail terms not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years.
However, before the law came into force, many drug offenders used to be given shorter jail terms or were jailed on probation basis where they would work in the community and report to the authorities on regular basis. If the law is reversed, then judges would be encouraged to sentence majority of drug offenders to serve their jail terms out of prisons and as a result, congestion in the prisons would be reduced.
Another way to deal with the problem of overcrowding in prisons is to change the law on “truth-in-sentencing”. This law requires all convicted offenders to serve at least 85% of their jail terms before they can be released. As per the law, it means that no prisoner can be released under any grounds without serving at least 85% of his or her jail term.
The implication is that prisoners live for long periods in prisons and as a result, the population in prisons keeps on increasing. However, if the law could be changed to require prisoners to serve at least 65% of their jail terms before they can be released, then it would mean that more prisoners, especially those who commit minor offenses could be released before the end of their jail terms and by so doing, more space would be created in the prisons for new inmates.
Research has also shown that about 54,000 prisoners in US federal prisons are not citizens of the US. The same applies to many countries both in the developed and developing world. What it means is that the US for instance incurs high costs in maintaining prisoners who are not its citizens.
The non citizen prisoners end up occupying the space which is supposed to be occupied by US prisoners. If the government of the US could strengthen and streamline the international program of transferring prisoners, then it would reduce congestion in its prisons by a good percentage which could go a long way in reducing overcrowding in the prisons.
Research has also shown that many elderly people overstay in federal prisons for no good reasons. The study of human growth and development suggests that people are unlikely to commit crime if they are released from prison after the age of 55 years. The reason is that majority usually lack the energy and motivation to engage in crime, especially after being jailed for engaging in crime.
However, despite these studies, the US federal prisons held over 17,000 inmates who were past the age of 55 years in 2013. If 75% of prisoners who attain the age of 55 years in prison are released and placed under probation or rehabilitation, then the US government would create more space for much younger offenders and give the elderly prisoners an opportunity to enjoy their old age in peace.
Another strategy which can ease congestion in US federal prisons is the effective and efficient use of the rehabilitation programs. According to the 1986 law, there is a provision for drug related offenders to have their jail terms reduced by some years if they fully participate in the drug treatment and rehabilitation programs. However, there are very few such programs yet the number of drug related offenders account for more than half of prisoners in US federal prisons.
Due to the limited number of drug treatment and rehabilitation programs, only a few drug offenders get the opportunity to participate in those programs and eventually have their jail terms reduced. It means that a good number of drug related offenders overstay at the prisons which worsens the problem of congestion in the prisons.
There is therefore the need for the federal government to wake up to the reality and expand the drug treatment and rehabilitation programs and give at least three quarters of all drug related offenders an opportunity to participate in the drug treatment and rehabilitation programs and have their jail terms reduced.
It is also a requirement under the 1986 law that prisoners who fully undergo through the drug treatment and rehabilitation programs get a one year off their jail terms. But due to the high rates of overcrowding in the prisons and the few number of the drug treatment and rehabilitation programs, very few prisoners do benefit by that provision.
On the contrary, majority of those who graduate from the drug treatment and rehabilitation programs do so when their jail terms are almost over and as a result, they are denied the opportunity to be released one year earlier.
If the programs could be streamlined and expanded, then more prisoners would be able to undergo through them and get released earlier. The streamlining and expansion of the programs would also ensure that many drug offenders come out of prisons with life skills which would reduce the number of people who go back to drugs after they are released due to lack of guidance, counseling, and empowerment.
Another area which has a potential of reducing congestion in the federal prisons in the US is reviewing the application of the 1980 sentencing law which was passed by the US congress. According to this law, crack and powder cocaine users were liable for different jail terms, with crack users facing a longer jail term than powder cocaine users.
However, many criminal justice advocates have put the argument that the law was discriminatory because it seemed to target the nonwhites who were more likely to use crack since it was cheaper than powder cocaine. As a result, since there was a big population of nonwhites in the US, many of them ended up behind bars and stayed there for longer periods than the whites.
The lobbying by the criminal justice advocates culminated in the change of the law in 2010 to treat the users of both crack and powder cocaine equally, meaning that from 2010, the users of both were sentenced to equal number of years behind bars. However, there is an opportunity to decongest the federal prisons further using this law by applying it to those who were sentenced before 2010. If that could be the case, many crack prisoners would end up out of jail and as a result, more space would be created (Knafo, 2014).
Under the current sentencing law, judges have a limited authority when it comes to exercising leniency to drug offenders because they are only allowed to give minimum sentencing to drug offenders with no criminal record. However, there are some drug offenders who have some criminal record but they are not necessarily a threat to public safety.
Such offenders do not qualify for minimum sentencing due to their criminal record. But since they are not a threat to the public, then the judges should also give them the minimum sentencing just like drug offenders with no criminal record.
Judges should also be given the permission to give other types of offenders such as white color offenders the minimum sentencing. Under the current law, only drug offenders qualify for the minimum sentencing. If the bracket could be expanded to include all other types of offenders, then many prisoners would qualify for the minimum sentencing and ease the congestion in the federal prisons in the US.
Another effective strategy for solving the problem of overcrowding in prisons is to invest heavily in prevention of crime. Prevention of crime is wide and includes economic and social empowerment of potential offenders, provision of social welfare services to the low income earners, investing in sports to target the idle youth, and creation of more job opportunities for young people.
The cost of preventing crime may seem high but when compared to the number of years wasted in jail especially by productive people, then it becomes better to prevent than to hold such people in jail. People who are economically and socially empowered are less likely to engage in crime than those who are not and therefore, countries which invest in prevention of crime are able to reduce congestion in their prisons by being proactive instead of being reactive.
In some cases, the cost of justice is above reach by many people both in the developed and developing countries. As a result, many people end up being convicted and imprisoned at the pre-trial stages. If the cost of justice could be brought down, then many people would afford to hire a lawyer and as a result, they would not be convicted at the pre-trial stages and therefore, their chances of being acquitted would be increased. The US government may also bring down the cost of justice by providing legal aid to low income earners or by cutting the cost of justice by half so that many people are able to hire advocates to represent them (Maschi, 2013).
The government may also reduce congestion in prisons by having alternative forms of sentencing for special groups such as children and mothers with small children. These groups occupy a good percentage of prison space without any good reasons. For instance, the government could pass a law to sentence such groups at their homes altogether and by so doing, more space would be created in the prisons.
Another solution to the problem lies in making the justice system efficient. By efficient, I mean that there should be no delays in the prosecution and determination of cases. In some instances, some offenders stay for a long time before their cases are heard and determined. Such long periods deny them justice since justice delayed is the same as justice denied.
Suspects who stay for long time before their cases are heard and determined contribute to the problem of overcrowding in prisons. If the justice systems are made efficient, then the number of suspects in the prisons would reduce significantly because no suspects would be held in prisons without having their cases heard and determined except for the serious cases such as murder or robbery with violence which need more time to investigate (Tella & Schargrodsky, 2013).
Another viable option for reducing congestion in the prisons the world over is to use other case resolution mechanisms such as dialogue, the churches or even traditional mechanisms. Using such alternatives may reduce the number of people who are convicted under the judicial systems and as a result, the number of people in prisons would be reduced by a good margin.
Such alternatives not only reduce congestion in prisons but they also create a more cohesive society because they are far much better than the judicial systems. When people take each other to the courts and some get jailed, the possibility of creating enmity becomes high as opposed to when they use these alternatives (Great Britain Parliament, 2005).
The problem of overcrowding in prisons is a global one just like terrorism and economic recession, meaning that it affects all nations of the world irrespective of their socioeconomic status. In many cases, the problem is caused by failure by judicial systems to be proactive.
As a result, they respond to the problem only when it happens and in most cases, the interventions are aimed at managing the problem not on stopping it altogether. Overcrowding in prisons has serious effects such as poor hygiene and increased violence in prisons as well as declining health of the inmates and prison officers. Building more prisons is just one of the many strategies of dealing with the problem of overcrowding in prisons.
The US is one of the countries most affected by the problem of overcrowding in prisons. Its government has tried many ways of dealing with the problem but it has not been successful in many occasions. However, if it focuses on expanding the drug treatment and rehabilitation programs and increasing the number of prisoners sentenced on probation basis, it would be in a position to reduce congestion in the prisons by a good margin.
Great Britain Parliament. (2005).Rehabilitation of prisoners: first report of session 2004-05. London : Stationery Office.
Hough, J.M., Allen, R., & Solomon, E. (2008). Tackling prison overcrowding: Build more prisons? Sentence fewer offenders?. Bristol: Policy Press.
Knafo, S. (2014). America’s federal prisons are in trouble.
Maschi, T. (2013). The high cost of the international aging prisoner crisis: well-being as the common denominator for action. The Gerontologist, 53 (4), 543-554.
Taylor, A. (2008). The prison system and its effects : wherefrom, whereto, and why?. New York : Nova Science Publishers.
Tella, R.T., & Schargrodsky, E. (2013). Criminal recidivism after prison and electronic monitoring. Journal of Political Economy, 121(1), 28-73.