Prison Overcrowding Essay

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Literature from the 1980s conceptualized prison overcrowding as an improper alignment in responsibilities between the state and the local government. This  conceptualization  suggested that prison services, such as providing new facilities, which are granted (at no cost) by the state government to citizens and officials of local government,  were overused or misallocated by the local government. A second contributor to prison overcrowding (as it was understood in the 1970s) resulted from changes in the criminal justice system. Changes included applying more limitations on early release of inmates, elongating prison sentencing, and a reduction of prison capacities. Thus, incarceration has increased 357 percent from the 1980s through 2005. Moreover, it was believed that the increase of prison incarceration could be the solution to the crime issue. This assumption was based on the beliefs that incarceration of offenders would create a fear of imprisonment, which might in turn discourage individuals from committing crimes, and that keeping inmates in jail would reduce crime by preventing habitual criminals from reoffending. However, despite the growth of imprisonment, crime rates have not significantly decreased and, in fact, only augmented the increase in prison overcrowding. Further, it is important to remember that crime rate is only one of the many explanations of prison overcrowding. Consequently, a demand for prison construction, more correctional programs, shorter sentencing, better treatment plans, and the decriminalization of drug offenses have been proposed as alternative solutions to modern prison overcrowding.

Since 1926, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has sponsored the collection of imprisonment data in the United States while the data was collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet, collection of national imprisonment data became highly noted in the literature during the early 1970s as prison overcrowding became apparent. Little had changed at the state and federal prison levels from 1970 to 2009. However, in 2010 the overall U.S. prison population declined by 0.3 percent; notably, it was the first decline since 1972.

Nonetheless, only 27 percent of this decline in imprisonment was accounted for by a decrease in sentenced prisoners, and subsequently 73 percent of the decline was explained by an increase in U.S. residents. Thus, by year-end 2010, the state and  federal  prisons  held  1,612,395 prisoners, which represented a rate of 500 sentenced inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, or 200 residents per prisoner. Then, at year-end 2011, the number of prisoners  dropped again, by 0.9 percent  (from 1,613,803 to 1,598,780) at the federal and state level. The ratio  of prisoners  to U.S. residents changed as well to 492 inmates per 100,000 residents. Moreover, the BJS also reported on its 2012 yearly bulletin that more individuals were released from state and federal prisons than admitted during 2011 (688,384 and 668,800, respectively). While the prison population decreased, prison overcrowding continues to be a social problem.

The United States has one of the largest populations of incarcerated individuals in the world. In order to sustain stability in prisons, society must devote significant financial resources to maintain sufficient  staff  and  adequate security  systems. Also, additional financial support is needed to provide effective programs for inmates to increase literacy, learn new skills, and raise education levels. It has been estimated that every year the United States spends approximately $65 to $75 billion on prisons. It was estimated that in 2008 the United States spent approximately $75 billion on corrections at the federal, state, and local levels.

Most of the cost was paid by state and local municipalities and only about 10 percent of the total cost was paid at the federal level. In 2012 the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections and the cost-benefit analysis unit reported their own developed approach to measure the estimated amount of taxpayer cost of prisons in 40 participating states. Results indicated that at the state level, only about $39 billion dollars were collected from taxpayers to cover the cost of prisons. The approximate average cost per inmate was $31,286.

Effects of Overcrowding

Prison overcrowding has a negative effect not only on the general population and on the economy but also on the prison system itself. In fact, prison overcrowding has been identified as one of the biggest challenges to overcome by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a federal government agency of the Department of Justice that is responsible for providing humane and progressive care for inmates.  Currently the BOP is responsible  for 117 federal prisons with approximately 178,000 federal offenders. Thus, since 1990 the BOP provides each prison with a minimum guideline of 35 square feet per inmate to provide sufficient space, and yet, because of prison overcrowding, achieving the BOP’s objectives has been difficult.

System wide, it has been reported that the BOP has exceeded its current maximum capacity by 39 percent. Specifically, the increase in incarceration has affected the infrastructure of the federal prisons, particularly because the BOP has an accumulation of 154 pending modernization and repair projects that were estimated to cost $349 million in 2012. In 2000, the ratio of inmate to BOP staff was four inmates to one staff member. However,  it has been estimated  that  the ratio increased in 2005 to five inmates to one BOP staff member. Moreover, when looking at the ratio of inmates to correctional officers, the numbers appear to be much worse. This ratio was noted to be 11 inmates to one correctional officer in 2004 and 2005. Such low ratios of BOP staff and correctional officers per inmates have contributed to the deterioration of the BOP’s facilities and the safety of inmates and staff. In addition to the economic cost and its impact on prisons themselves, prison overcrowding creates collateral costs.

Collateral cost can be conceptualized as the effect incarceration has on the lives of those being incarcerated as well as their families and social supports. It has been estimated that approximately 54 percent of incarcerated individuals are parents of minors. This includes about 120,000 mothers and approximately 1 million fathers.  Research has shown that children with incarcerated parents are more likely to perform poorly in school settings. Issues of loss and abandonment, little or no attachment, and ongoing poor health care may be experienced by parent and child. When former inmates come back into society, they are expected to deal with social demands and responsibilities. Most have to find job opportunities to cover any financial obligations that were pending or court-related fees. Any social network or working skills that were present before incarceration may have eroded. In addition, individuals out of prison must confront social stigma. Thus, finding jobs may be difficult. The wages of a former male inmate are reduced by 11 percent, and annual earnings are decreased to 40 percent. These adversities experienced by former inmates and other criminogenic factors have a link to recidivism and thus, prison overcrowding. Criminogenic factors include high substance abuse, changes to laws, harsher penalties for certain crimes, unaffordable bails, poverty, patterns of immigration, lack of support in the home environment, and unemployment.

In the 1970s the United States developed harsher sentencing and policies related to incarceration that continue to impact current correctional systems. In 1990 approximately 829,340 individuals were convicted on felony charges in state courts. By 1998 this number increased to approximately 927,720, and in 2006 the number continued to increase to 1,132,290 individuals. The trend in sentencing has been toward lengthening and mandating prison terms, especially for drug offenders. Federal felony drug offenders may receive an average sentence of seven years and three months.

In 2006, approximately 26 percent (8,670) of individuals accused of murder or manslaughter received a sentence of life in prison. The “getting tough” climate among legislators has contributed significantly to prison  overcrowding. Research has indicated that the tougher the criminal justice policies are, the higher the number of inmates is expected to be. Moreover, it has even been reported in some studies that tougher experiences in prison may predict recidivism effects.


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