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The current condition of American corrections environment is unstable. This instability is due to continued management of large numbers of incarcerated persons, and limited operating budgets for corrections departments. The issue of overcrowding is one that has drawn particular attention of multiple state and federal entities, due to ever increasing monetary needs of corrections departments to manage offender populations. That attention has resulted in swift reactions. The issue has further resulted in the need for innovative alternatives and strategies to the management of criminals within America. Sentencing laws and parole management and delivery have evolved to a position of limited resource and opportunity for offenders. Limitations in these two critical areas of the criminal justice world have ultimately resulted in large offender populations that are incarcerated for extended periods of time. Alternatives to incarceration must be considered in order to affect change in the current state of corrections.
Alternatives to Confinement
Corrections in America has evolved to a state of gridlock due to the management of incredibly large numbers of offenders. Prisons are maintaining custody over populations that far exceed exceed facility capacity, causing prison administrators to make operational decisions that ultimately result in limited medical attention, food service, and program availability for the offender population. Alternatives to confinement must be considered and implemented in order for effective and efficient management within the U.S. correctional environment. Modern considerations for alternatives to confinement can not only provide relief to prison management, but can also provide an opportunity for offenders to progress in a positive manner.
Research for this topic included the study of statistics compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A poll of public opinion was achieved by examination of a 2007 Texas voter survey. Schwartz (2010) and Moore (2010) discussed current decisions made by California administrators in regards to prison overcrowding in the state. Likewise, Hall and Spicuzza (2010) discussed similar decisions made in Wisconsin. Williams (2009) and Doyle (2009) examined the budgetary implications of prison overcrowding on numerous state governments. Johnson and Dhami (2010), King (2009), and Jones (2009) discussed sentencing perspectives.
Although currently, many U.S. correctional departments report a slight drop in the number of incarcerated individuals, the true overcrowding problem remains evident. State prisons held 1,403,091 people as of Jan. 1, nearly 6 percent fewer than a year before. Prison populations have fallen in 27 states in that period, while they have risen in 23 (Scwartz, 2010, p. 15). Prisons reporting lower numbers of offenders also report legislative decision to lower offender populations through the ¿½shedding¿½ of inmates. Specifically, many of these states have released offenders back into the community in an effort to lower the offender populations they manage. Thus, the appearance of lowered population is a farce. In 2009, a panel of federal judges ordered the California prison system to reduce its inmate population of 150,000 by 40,000¿½roughly 27 percent within two years (Moore, 2009, p. 10). California released 4,257 prisoners in 2009. In Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle announced plans last year to let thousands of prisoners out early to help plug a looming budget gap (Hall & Spicuzza, 2010). Although the release of offenders lowers the number of those incarcerated, and thus managed, the issues that led to the overcrowding remain unaddressed. Ultimately if left as is, the problems that feed overcrowding will continue, causing no change in the condition.
The population managed by a corrections department is defined considering numerous factors. It is determined by the flow of admissions and release. Total state admissions to prison declined in 2007, well before the economic collapse, and again in 2008. The admissions decline was driven exclusively by a reduction in the number of people sent to prison for new crimes, as the other type of admission, those for violations of probation or parole, increased for the fifth year in a row. On the release side of the equation, the number of inmates release from state prison grew for the seventh year in a row in 2008 and reached an all-time high of 683,106 (Sabol, West, & Cooper, 2009). Taken together, the rate of state prison growth began to slow in 2007, dropping from 2.8 percent in 2007, dropping from 2.8 percent in 2006 to 1.5 percent in 2007, and then to 0.7 percent in 2008 before declining 0.4 percent in 2009. These statistics reflect that the message that prison overcrowding is a problem that is moving in a positive direction is inaccurate. The current decisions that are affecting the number of incarcerated individuals are knee jerk reactions to current conditions. Although the crime rate is down, sentencing laws still result in long term housing of offenders. Recidivism continues to rise, as parole and probation violators return to prison. Release of offenders is done out of sheer desperation. These factors do not translate to a positive progression. They prove that the problem remains.
The overcrowding of offenders within the prison environments has launched a budget shortfall that is being felt nationwide. The backlash from budget limitations has also affected numerous agencies.
At least 26 states have slashed prison funding¿½seven by more than 10 percent. These cuts have manifested themselves in many ways, including job losses, wage freezes, reduced meal offering of the incarcerated, and cutbacks in the in-prison and community based reentry programs. Hawaii has cut budgeting for prison drug treatment programs by one-third. The governor of Illinois announced that the state would be laying off 1,000 state prison workers. Connecticut has eliminated STRIDE, an in-prison and community based reentry program focused on job placement that has a 7 percent recidivism rate (Williams, 2009).
The budget restraints that exist are directly related to the overcrowding problem, as management costs for such large populations ultimately cripple the budget. This creates a cycle of oppression, as the lack of funding for programs and day-to¿½day services for offenders (medical-food service) causes unrest within the prison environment and unsuccessful reentry into the community. The result ultimately translates to facility violence, low staff morale and performance, and offender recidivism.
To effectively manage the overcrowding issue, corrections administrators must examine the problems that have led to the large populations. One of the most substantial concerns in regards to overcrowding is sentencing laws. Sentencing is geared towards achieving multiple aims, protection of the public, punishment of offenders, reduction of crime, rehabilitation of offenders, and victim reparation (Mueller-Johnson & Dhami, 2010). It is a critical link in the criminal justice process that cannot be simplified. Simplification of this process results in mass populations requiring long term housing.
Since the 1970¿½s when parole boards had wide discretion to release prisoners, states such as Wisconsin have set mandatory minimum sentences and applied baseball¿½s ¿½three strikes¿½ rule to the national pastime of incarceration, often locking up repeat offenders for life. In the 1990¿½s federal incentives prodded the states to adopt ¿½truth in sentencing¿½ meaning that a court sentence would be completed in full, ending regards for good behavior behind bars (Doyle, 2009).
The impact of sentencing on the correctional environment is one that is continuous. Sentencing strategies translate to options for management of offenders and potential positive progression of individuals back into society. Judges bear a great responsibility in considering the correct approach in managing criminal activity and filtering criminals out of the community. However, blanket laws limit the overall effective nature of that filtering process. The following is an opinion offered from Alabama Circuit Judge, Hon. Michael T. Jones:
Judges in my state and throughout the nation seek to impose sanctions that
fulfill the often competing justifications for punishment, for example, sentences that represent just retribution for the wrong done to society, that satisfy society¿½s need to be protected, that deter the individual offender, that hopefully deter future potential violators, and that educate and rehabilitate the defendant (Jones, 2009).
Mandatory sentencing laws prevent such a mission from actually being completed. They further prevent an opportunity for corrections based rehabilitation programs to prove successful.
Another issue significantly affecting overcrowding in American prisons is parole violations and the return of offenders to prison. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported the following information:
During 2007, a total of 1,180,469 persons on parole were at risk of reincarceration. This included persons under parole supervision on January 1 or those entering parole during the year. Of these parolees, about 16% were returned to incarceration in 2007. In 2008, over 7.3 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at yearend (Recidivism, 2010).
This information reflects a significant percent of the incarcerated population in a position to possibly succeed within the community. In fact, if parolees successfully integrate back into society, prison administrators could see approximately 16 percent of their total population released from their responsibility.
To effectively solve the problem of overcrowding within the American correctional environment, administrators must consider relative alternatives to confinement. With consideration of the most significant issues affecting the growth of the population, the most relative alternatives to confinement must revolve around sentencing, rehabilitative options, and parole. In their current condition, these three key areas statistically feed and maintain the amount of offenders incarcerated. If reconsidered, the outcome could prove substantial.
Alternatives to the current sentencing processes in America can simply be done by considering alternatives to long term or mandatory sentencing. The magnitude of the problem of overcrowding requires alternatives to the simple incarceration of individuals. The Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure offers a strong position on the topic:
Judges should be sensitive to the impact their sentences have on all components of the criminal justice system and should consider alternatives to long-term institutional confinement or incarceration in cases involving offenders whom the court deem to pose no serious danger to society (Jones, 2009).
Limiting the power of judges though sentencing laws prevents this type of consideration from taking place. A primary cause of the crowding is mandatory minimum sentencing policies, which essentially tie judges hands in meting out sentences, especially regarding drug offenses, which are common (King, 2009).
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that since 1994, violent crime rates (murder, rape and sexual assault, robbery, and assault) have declined, reaching the lowest level ever recorded in 2005 (Recidivism, 2010). Substance abuse offenders make up 20 percent of inmates in state prisons (Lyons, 2010). Statistics like this reveal that many of the offenders currently housed in U.S. prisons are serving sentences for non-violent crimes. Mandatory sentencing laws prevent judges from the power of full consideration of alternatives to confinement for these type of offenders.
A strong alternative to mandatory sentencing laws affecting non-violent offenses is deferred adjudication. Deferred adjudication is a form of judge-ordered community supervision. It is different from probation, in that regular probation requires a finding of guilt (conviction) for a crime followed by a specific punishment of confinement (sentence) that is then suspended. A defendant placed on deferred adjudication avoids a conviction or sentence because the judge is authorized to delay any finding of guilt or punishment for as long as the defendant successfully complies with the conditions of supervision. Considering the lifelong effects of conviction, successful rehabilitation may be achieved through a sentencing option of this type.
Due to the significant number of offenders incarcerated for drug offenses, community rehabilitation options are a justifiable consideration for alternatives to confinement in American prisons. Particularly in situations that merge deferred prosecution with rehabilitative efforts, this type of alternative could create an environment that could ultimately compel drug abusers to accept and remain in drug treatment. Simple incarceration for numerous or substantial drug offenses simply warehouses a problem. This is particularly true of prison departments that have had to limit their program opportunities. The possibility of any type of behavior reform is lost. The judicial ability to consider and order rehabilitative options to such a significant percentage of the make-up of the incarcerated population can be extremely powerful in effecting prison overcrowding.
Parole is another critical area in which an alternative to confinement may be achieved. Due to the number of offender returning to prison, the prison population is never truly lowered. To ultimately effect the number of incarcerated individuals, an effort to support the mission of parole must be considered. An effort of this type was recently implemented by Mississippi corrections:
In 2008, Mississippi rolled back to 25 percent, from 85 percent, the portion of sentences that nonviolent offenders are required to serve prior to parole eligibility. Between July 2008, when the law took effect, and August 2009, Mississippi paroled 3,076 inmates. Through August 2009, only 121 of those paroled have returned to custody¿½116 for technical violations of parole and five for non-violent offenses. Officials attribute the low recidivism rate to the use of a new risk assessment tool, which is helping distinguish between inmates who can be safely paroled and those who need to remain behind bars (Public Safety Performance Project, 2009).
The ultimate effect that this reconsideration had was channeled to many areas of the department. Not only did it speak to successful reentry, but it also created budgetary ¿½breathing room¿½ for administrators to consider providing programming for those who they determined required incarceration. Dollars spent housing and managing offender returning to their cell after parole attempts could now be spent on those who truly required the management effort.
Public opinion plays a critical role in prison population, particularly in light of valuable tax dollars and the considerations for their allocation. In a 2007 voter poll, for example, 71 percent of Texas respondents said they preferred a mandatory treatment program as an alternative to prison. The level of support went up to 83 percent when respondents were told the diversion of lower-level offenders could help avert $1 billion in new prison costs (Baselice & Associates, 2007). With continuous construction of new prison facilities and lowered crime rates, the public can only begin to question the management of our prisons and the policies of our corrections agencies.
The issue of overcrowding in American prisons is one that cannot be overlooked. The current offender population in the U.S. is literally overwhelming correctional agencies. The result is extreme budget limitations, which translate to decreased staff numbers, limited program opportunity for offenders, and deteriorating conditions within the prisons themselves. Overcrowding has occurred because of large numbers of offender admitted and maintained within corrections departments due to sentencing laws, and limited numbers of offenders released back into the community due to parole revocations and recidivism.
Alternative to the problem include reconsideration of decisions that have already been made, such as sentencing laws and parole management. The public opinion of the management of the issue is concurrent with this, which is simply to find options for spending tax dollars more effectively. Despite the release of offenders that many departments have recently chosen, the population will continue to build unless considerations for its success are considered.