Friday, February 3, 2012

Overcrowding in our Jails/Prisons

For quite some time there has been a growing concern over the amount of people being incarcerated in our prison system in the United States. With many states having to cut their budget and prison personnel, these prisons are becoming more and more dangerous as the prisoner to guard ratio decreases. More and more states are starting to turn to punishments to keep offenders out of the jails and prisons.  These techniques include house arrest, probation, and heavy fines. Why is overcrowding such a hot button issue? Well, as the prison population increases a number of things happen.

1. The ratio of prison personnel to inmates stretches out. This decreases the amount of supervision in these prisons and allows for more incidents to occur between inmates. The safety of these prisoners is called into question.

2. The necessary resources that the state provides for these inmates become more stretched out and the demand for said resources increases. Food, toiletries,clothing, and medical attention are all things that each and every one of these inmates needs to survive; with most state budgets being stretched really thin right now, having to  pay for more and more inmates to live in their prison systems is not helping the fiscal situation.

3. The overall standard of living drastically decreases as you cram more and more people into a confined area. Only allowing an individual a few square feet to himself can cause a lot of problems over a long period of time. The potential for violence increases as well as the potential for gang activity.

Besides adjusting their sentencing techniques what are the courts doing to solve this problem? Recently, the supreme court has stepped in to attempt to manually lower the prison population in California (as California has some of the most crowded prisons in the nation). The court demanded that California aggressively attempt to decrease the amount of people living in their prison system.  This decision has had a ripple effect on many other states, the thought being that now with this decision in place, the supreme court will have the ability to shrink prison populations in any other state that it wants. This notion is not sitting well with many states, including Illinois. A "friend of the courts" brief has been drafted by a group of 15 states, backing California. On the other hand, supreme court justice Kennedy who was responsible for writing the 52 page opinion on the case, argues that overcrowding in prisons violates the constitution's cruel and unusual punishment ban. It should be interesting to see how this plays out in the long run as California needs to release 30,000 inmates in order to meet the target population set by the Supreme Court.

Prison overcrowding has been on the upswing for over 25 years now. Starting with the war on drugs in the 80's, the legislature has passed harsh punishments for minor offenders and has been for years now. It seems like lesser and lesser crimes are now carrying bigger and bigger punishments. Don't get me wrong, I think drug offenders (or anyone who breaks the law for that matter) is entitled to punishment, but for a lot of these offenses community based sentencing will suffice.

CT Prison Population from 1985: CT Prison Population from 1985
As we can see in this graph, in a state like Conecticut, the prison population has increased by the tens of thousands over the course of 20 years, starting in the mid 80's. 

With the economy tanking on us since 2008, the crime rate has drastically increased around the nation. The point is, something needs to be done in order to keep prison populations at a respectable rate. I think community based sentencing is a good way to go with lesser crimes. I don't necessarily agree with the supreme courts decision to step in and demand the release of 30,000 prisoners, but in the case of California it makes some sense as to why they would have stepped in like they did. Hopefully, these states can adjust their systems to alleviate the massive amounts of overcrowding that we are experiencing in America today.


  1. I really enjoyed your blog, but in my opinion there was one thing you briefly touched upon that is a major factor as to why prisons are so over crowded. I think that the people in charge of the correctional field, like judges and lawmakers, continue to provoke harsher punishments on criminals for the sole purpose of getting re-elected; because people want to hear that criminals are being put behind bars without thinking about the reciprocation. I also agree with point #2 full-heartedly because most people don't think about the effects of prison overcrowding.

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