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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 one million for a hypothetical five hundred bed medium-security prison.” (3) That doesn’t even factor in the operating costs, architects’ fees, and other additional costs which can be millions more.

The sentencing of drug offenders not only crowds the prison population and restricts its budget, but it also takes this first time, non-violent offenders away from their families. Many of their families may depend on them for financial and emotional support. Truth in sentencing requires offenders to serve at least eighty-five percent of their sentences, thus ensuring that they will be out of their families’ lives for a long period of time if they get a “common” harsh sentence. Groups such as “Families Against Mandatory Minimums” have been started because of the hurt and anger they have felt from losing their loved ones for several years. There are over three hundred and forty thousand prisoners in prison today for drug convictions. (3) A good percentage of this number includes those who were low level, non violent dealers or users who never posed a dangerous threat to the community. Hundreds of thousands of family members are therefore left without a loved for years because of excessive laws pertaining to drugs; a person convicted of possessing half a kilogram of cocaine in federal court and in a lot states is sentenced to five years in prison.(4)

Prison overcrowding likely will affect almost every single prison official and politician sometime in his or her tenure. There have been several steps taken to address this problem but few have looked at reducing the drug laws and drug offenders as a means of lowering the prison population. “At the end of 2003, twenty-two states and the federal system reported operating at or above capacity.”(5) There are several policies or approaches that have been used by prison officials and politicians to reduce the overcrowding. One of these is the null strategy, which suggests that nothing should be done. This policy uses the strategy of doing nothing because it assumes that the problem is temporary and will disappear in time. Although this strategy has been used by many prisons, it has not been proven effective and is not a proactive solution to the overcrowding situation.

A second policy used by prison officials and politicians to reduce the prison population is the construction strategy. This policy uses the rationale that the only way to reduce the population in prisons and at the same time stay tough on crime is to build more prisons. States that have used this method for reduction have been able to even out the population in their prisons, but they soon realize that our criminal justice system continues to send convicts to prison and there never seems to be enough space. A major problem that reduces the potential effectiveness of this strategy is money. A newly built prison can costs anywhere from thirty million to one hundred million or more. It is extremely difficult for federal and state legislatures to come up with this type of money and convince the public that raising their taxes to house convicts is reasonable. These are two of the more commonly used policies today, although they tend to look at the overall population of prisons.

Other policies have looked into reducing prison overcrowding by limiting the mandatory sentencing laws. Rather than look at prison reduction in an overall sense, certain groups and legislatures have turned their attention to cut down on the harsh sentences imposed on low-level drug offenders. Many judges, argue that there is no discretion in sentencing and a five or ten-year prison term for so many first time drug offenders is unnecessary. Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy, an opponent of mandatory minimums, pointed out that “the United States’ rate of incarceration is one in 143 people, compared to one in 1,000 in England, France, Germany, and Italy. He said that one in 10 African-American men in their mid- to late 20s are behind bars.” These astounding numbers are hard to overlook but even tougher to change because the laws affecting them are hard to change.

One way mandatory sentencing changed was through the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1994. This “safety valve” allows low level, non-violent offenders to bypass mandatory sentencing and receive a lighter sentence. The “safety valve” is a step in the right direction but “the criteria for eligibility is very narrow so thousands of non-violent drug offenders are still sent to prison.” (6) Other efforts brought about in the federal legislature have mostly failed. However, states have enacted their own legislation to change their mandatory sentencing laws. Iowa changed their state laws so judges could use their discretion in giving out mandatory five-year sentences. Seventeen states have eliminated mandatory sentencing laws or restructured other harsh penalties in the past ten years; most of these targeted low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. The biggest political decision, or policy change, came in Michigan on Christmas day, 2002. Governor John Engler signed legislation to repeal the state’s mandatory minimum laws and replace them with sentencing guidelines, which allowed judges a long list of sentences rather than just one.

The null strategy and construction strategy are policies that accomplish very little. The rationale behind the null strategy seems too simple and unresponsive, but many prison officials and state legislatures throughout the country use this policy. It accomplishes nothing because it assumes that the problem will resolve itself which is quite a gamble considering you are dealing with something as unpredictable as criminals. The construction policy, used sparingly, also does not address the problem of overcrowding prisons. It may temporarily relieve a certain prison from overcrowding, but it does not reduce the amount of convicts being sent to prison. The amount of people being sentenced to prison continues to rise from two to three percent each year. It is therefore important to look at the types of offenders sentenced in order to reduce the overcrowded prisons. Our nation’s sensationalism with drugs has produced prisons that are operating, on average, thirteen percent above their capacity.

The Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1994 and the state of Michigan’s complete overhaul of their mandatory sentencing laws in 1992 are two of the better policies implemented in the last ten years to help keep undeserving drug offenders out of prison. The Omnibus Act was a step in the right direction but the law continues to make it difficult for first time drug offenders to get out of mandatory minimum sentencing. In fact, it is many times those who are caught with the least amount of drugs that get the stiffest sentences because they don’t have any valuable information to pass on to investigators or prosecutors. Michigan abolished the mandatory sentencing laws in their states and replaced them with the old sentencing guidelines.

This historic legislation passed in 2002 is the overall best policy used to this date. It ended severe punishment for those who did not deserve it and returned discretion to the judges. Although this legislation reduced the amount of time and prisoners being sentenced to, it still sent thousands of first time, non-violent users to prison. One way to reduce the prison population is by re-working the mandatory minimum sentencing laws and sending low level, first time offenders to a type of boot camp combined with counseling.

A policy using boot camp to house low-level drug offenders instead of a long prison sentence would have a threefold effect; it would cut prison costs and overcrowding, it would be a fairer and more democratic punishment; and it would keep families apart far less. My policy includes boot camp because its purpose is to instill discipline in the lives of these offenders. Combined with a type of life counseling, this overall experience could give these offenders some direction in their lives and point out their mistakes. First, this policy or program would only be available to those who have not been convicted before and people who are low-level, non-violent offenders; a good percentage of those incarcerated right now. The statistics of recidivism among boot camp participants may not support this policy, but I argue that it could work if the states and federal government actually put time, effort, and some money in this program.

Many times it is up to the defender as to whether they want to be helped and this makes it difficult for boot camps or other forms of intermediate sanctions. Therefore, to provide incentive, my policy would provide a risk/reward system. Successful completion of this program would result in the drug conviction wiped clean off their record. However, for those who fail to comply with the rules and overall philosophy or those who are convicted again after successful completion, I would suggest shock incarceration. The rationale of this method is that a short jail period followed by probation could make the offender realize that the justice system is legitimate and the law must be followed. As in all policies, one could find fault in its intentions, but my boot camp policy for first time/low level offenders is beneficial in a number of ways.

The expensive costs of new prisons and the upkeep of prisons would be drastically reduced. Instead of sending these offenders to prison for a number of years, we would be sending them to a boot camp for a number of weeks depending on the gravity of their offense and overall attitude. Legislatures would not have keep finding ways to come up with money and taxpayers would not have to pay nearly as much money for prison construction and upkeep. In addition, by sending thousands of these prisoners to boot camp, our prison population would reduce by the thousands. Second, boot camp punishment would be equal to the crime of a first time, non- violent drug offender. Five or ten years confined in a prison for the possession or intended distribution of a small amount of narcotics is absurd. In too many cases, offenders have been the victims of circumstance where they did not even use or sell drugs but were given a mandatory sentence.

For example, Nicole Richardson was sentenced to ten years without the possibility of parole because she had knowledge that her boyfriend was a LSD drug dealer. Finally, several weeks of boot camp is much better sentence for the families of the victims. Boot camp does keep a low level offender out of their families’ lives for several years. It will be much easier for an offender to reconnect with his or her family and friends after serving in boot camp. The stigma of a conviction will probably remain, but probably will be easier to reintegrate into the community after serving in a boot camp rather than a long prison term.


1. Bureau of Prisons- www.Bop.gov

2. Bureau of Justice Statistics- http://crime.about.com

http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/prisons.htm- .

4. Rand study- http://www.rand.org/publications

5. American Corrections/ Publishing and Periodicals- www.Aca.org

6. Families against Mandatory Minimums- http://www.famm.org/pdfs/Primer.pdf

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