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America is currently faced with many criminal justice issues today. Among one of the more serious and costly issues is prison overcrowding. Regardless of the justice system's best intentioned efforts to keep up with the need for new inmate housing, the nation's correctional facilities have become seriously overcrowded. While many feel that the issue of prison overcrowding is not one of great significance it actually causes many undesirable societal consequences. Prison overcrowding tends to have negative consequences due to the fact that it contributes to unsanitary conditions, inmate violence, and high recidivism rates. Most inmates released from prison are far from rehabilitated and some even pose a bigger threat to society than they did with the offense that sent them to prison. The problem of prisoner overcrowding is serious and contributing to this problem are hoards of criminals, such as non-violent offenders and the mentally ill, who should not be incarcerated within the prison population. Two viable solutions for remedying the overcrowding problem necessitate the re-examination of our nation's sentencing legislation and consideration of alternative methods of incarceration that are strongly focused on rehabilitation. At this point in history though it is unclear whether our nation possesses the political desire to bring either of these alternatives to realization.
We as a nation try to maintain liberty and freedom for all however the fact remains that our nation imprisons more of it citizens than any country in the world. The statistics, which are excessive, speak for themselves. Even though America constitutes only about five percent of the overall global population, it incredibly holds almost twenty-five percent of the world's incarcerated prisoners (Marciniak, 2002). There are over 2 million inmates in America, and most of them are imprisoned in facilities whose capacity has been greatly exceeded.
There are numerous causes for this unnecessary overcrowding. Among them is the Crime Control Act of 1990. This legislature was enacted by congress and consequently meant tougher sentencing, a strategy which was designed to serve as a deterrent for other would-be-criminals. Other crime control legislation was also enacted following the Crime Control Act, which further supported the government's tough on crime stance. Even despite some studies having acknowledged that the stricter penalties have reduced crime in urban areas, the fact remains that the nation's prison system has not been able to keep pace with the constant influx of prisoners (Diiulio, 1995). Overcrowding also causes a lack of resources such as insufficient physical and mental health care programs, privacy, supervision and these conditions in particular contribute to excessive inmate aggression. On the other side of overcrowding, it has also meant that thousand of inmates get paroled much earlier than they normally would have (Marciniak, 2002). The paradox presented here maintains that tougher sentencing can result in reduced sentences when overcrowding is forcing prisoners out of facilities.
This is not always the case though, over a dozen states have eradicated the parole process altogether, which translates into every inmate serving out the full length of his or her sentence (Butterfield, 1999). There is no reprieve for these prisoners and parole violators, they return to prison and do not get second chances. This contributes to more overcrowding and it is expected to increase rapidly, further complicating the problem. In fact, In fact the overall prison population in Americans has increased by almost three percent every year, which means that the problem is only going to grow at an exponential rate (Marciniak, 2002). Offenders are being sent to prison to be forgotten about rather than attempting to rehabilitate them and that is essentially what causes the overcrowding. Lack of education, rehabilitation, and improperly focused legislature make for an implausible cycle. Most feel the overcrowding situation is really unnecessary, when one takes into account that a large amount of inmates are non-violent offenders that could most likely benefit from rehabilitation of some other type.
The offenders convicted of drug-related crimes are the fastest growing of all incarcerated groups. Even considering the fact that a portion of these offenders have committed more serious drug crimes such as trafficking and distribution, almost half of all incarcerated criminal offenders consist of recreational drug abusers who need some type of treatment. America's persistant war on drugs has caused the nation's prisons to become overcrowded with inmates who could be better rehabilitated by receiving medical treatment in a facility rather than incarcertaion (Kay, 2002). However in the 1980's public tolerance of narcotics changed drastically causing the government to enact harsher laws, and some of which call for even first time drug users to be mandatorily sentenced to correctional facilities. The results of this have shown us that, first of all, incarceration of recreational drug users has sparked a serious overcrowding issue and secondly because the recidivism rate of convicted drug offenders is so high, that these criminals are not receiving the proper rehabilitation needed to succeed; ultimately creating a negative cycle.
Over a quarter of the entire American prison population consists of non-violent offenders that could potentially benefit from being rehabilitated through some other method. There are roughly 250,000 drug offenders behind bars, for instance, and another 265,000 individuals who have been incarcerated for such property offenses such as burglary, shoplifting, theft and other non-violent offenders (Justice Department, 2007). Even though it is necessary to incarcerate these offenders, some repeated offenders, a large proportion of these estimated 500,000 non-violent offenders could be rehabilitated more efficiently. Society is focused on the tough on crime strategy while the social ills that encourage theft and drug addiction are overlooked.
Contributing to the growing issue of overcrowding in America is the influx of improperly diagnosed mentally ill inmates whose incarceration is improper and can be unconstitutional. These prisoners need proper medical treatment which they are not getting at correctional facilities. They need to be committed to psychiatric hospitals where targeted medication regimens can be implemented and monitored. According to Amanda Pustilnik (2005) who teaches law and neuroscience at Harvard Law School, there are approximately 30,000 mentally ill individuals incarcerated each year, the majority of whom have been arrested on vague charges that primarily reflect the communities desire to remove them from public view. Only about 1/5 of ill individuals are actually sent to proper treatment facilities. This is namely due to the increased cost of residential treatment over the years, it is actually cheaper to house an inmate in jail or prison than to commit them to residential treatment facilities. These mentally disabled individuals need medical and psychological treatment, and they are not receiving this adequate care in prison. The majority of these people, though, have "committed only a public order infraction or no offense at all," a fact which raises constitutional issues regarding the very legality of their confinement (Pustilnik, 2005, p. 220).
Society has become complacent with the idea that confining offenders to prison keeps society safe. Prison has become the first resort for addressing the crime problem instead of the last. The focus is no longer on rehabilitation and shaping prisoners into more productive members of society. Now the intent is simply to remove criminals from society altogether, and put them in a place where they cannot pose a nuisance to others (Kay, 2002). While there are some efforts to reduce crime through education, job training and other community efforts, many of these programs are grossly underfunded. Many maintain the view that whatever consequences prisoners endure from overcrowding are generally accepted as well deserved, their own fault and, as a result, their own burden to bear.
This is not truly the case though. In reality, the overcrowding of prisons is indeed the entire nation's problem. There are at least two principal means in which society has to ultimately pay the price for these overcrowded prisons. The first is the profound monetary burden consequently imposed on taxpayers. The cost of housing inmates is more than $60 billion annually, with cost projections expected to rise (Washington Post, 2007). Secondly, prisoners that fulfill their sentences in these overcrowded facilities usually do not return to society as rehabilitated citizens with any expanded educational or job skills, due to the fact that few resources are available to them while incarcerated. If anything, they generally return to the streets hardened by their experience, having been exposed to violence and the other undesirable repercussions of overcrowding, and they now pose a much greater threat than they did before going to prison the first time (Dolovich, 2005).
The incredible cost caused by the expanding prison population is a serious drain and local, state, and federal resources. Heavy incarceration rates give rise to a demand for more space, which, in turn, feeds a relentless prison construction boom. Since 1980, approximately 1,000 additional holding facilities have been built around the nation, and most of these are now overcrowded as well (Marciniak, 2002). The result is a seemingly unstoppable construction wave that costs the nation's taxpayers billions of dollars each year. Even more alarming, there seems to be no end in sight. A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, for instance, estimates that the nation will have to house an additional 192,000 inmates by 2011, at an additional cost of $27.5 billion (Washington Post, 2007).
With numbers growing fast it is feasible that by the middle of this century our nation will be spending around $100 billion dollars to providing housing for more than three million inmates. This financial burden lies that lies on the taxpayer is two-fold. First, the expense of housing inmates and building new prisons generates steady tax increases. Second, the diversion of tax dollars into incarceration programs means a loss of revenue for other essential programs, such as education and social security. The budgets for these other programs have to be cut in order to free up funds for building and maintaining new facilities. The most distressing part of these events, is that it does not ultimately lead to a safer society.
Several studies have shown that prisoners that are released from prisons with overcrowding issues are likely to emerge with more aggression and psychological problems then when they were sentenced. Overcrowding can lead to intolerable, unsanitary conditiond and inhumane behaviors which further contribute to inmate aggression and violence (Dolovih, 2005). On the one hand, it seems like making inmates sleep in crowded cells, or on floors, is not such a bad thing but overcrowding has other consequences as well. The conditions that inmates are exposed to in overcrowded facilities are often more than just sleeping arrangements. These conditions often work against inmates, and contribute to their path into toughed criminals. Individual citizens then pay personally for the frustrations inmates bear as a consequence of overcrowding. Crowded facilities can cause adverse psychological affects (Dolovich, 2005). Overcrowding can cause substantial inmate aggression; guards also tend to become abusive when they feel there are too many inmates to properly manage. This aggression and abuse causes frustrated inmates and can ultimately lead to riots.
This type of environment can be psychologically damaging to the inmates future well-being which can impact society negatively in a multitude of ways. Mass imprisonment can be dangerous to the community because the extreme conditions prisoners are exposed to can consequently cause even more criminal minded and violent individuals (Robert, D., 2004) In the first place, there are individuals "other than inmates, including family members, friends, and neighbors of prisoners who suffer adverse consequences that flow beyond the prison gates" (Roberts, 2004, p. 1274). Friends and family members in particular, who witness the psychological deterioration of the incarcerated individual feel generally helpless to intervene on their behalf (Roberts, 2004). Based on this, the damaging effects of overcrowding have a substantial reach that affects not only inmates and society but also the well-being of the convicted offenders family and friends.
Secondly, extended incarceration in overcrowded facilities can cause inmates to develop physiological, psychological issues "and prisoners carry the effects or consequences of that harm back into the free world once they have been released" (Haney, 2004, p. 1). These criminals re-enter society as hardened criminals that are now far more capable of committing crimes of a violent nature. Because of this it is crucial that policymakers find a feasible solution to these problems that trouble American prison systems.
Overcrowding is not a newly found issue but one of extensive debate that has been blossoming out of control since the early 1980s. For decades supporters have argued that better alternatives to prison should be made available, yet adequately facilitated programs are few and far between. Due to this lack of alternatives and because tougher laws have made sentencing guidelines more stringent, judges and juries often find themselves duty-bound to incarcerate offenders. It is also important to consider that the availability of these alternatives varies from state to state, as well as the sentencing guidelines themselves and consequently a feasible sentence in one state for a given crime would not necessarily be fitting for another. For instance two individuals who commit the same or similar crimes in separate jusridiction can receive wholly different sentences, what one offender may get sentenced to may not be available to the same type of offender in a different jusridiction (Demleitner, 2008).
On the federal level, available alternatives to prison are almost nonexistent. Judges can only assign parole and house arrest to a relatively minimal number of offenders. Roughly eighty-five percent of all offenders are sentences to prison while the other ten percent or so distribute their sentences between incarceration and parole (Demleitner, 2005). When it comes to sentencing federal guidelines are more stringent than state guidelines, so federal justices often have little to no flexibility when it comes to offering alternative forms of incarceration. Only a very small portion of federally convicted offenders have the opportunity for alternative sentencing and must meet strict guidelines such as being a non-violent offender without any previous convictions among others.
At the state level however these guidelines can be more flexible and sometimes offer a wider array of alternatives to incarceration. Unfortunately though these alternative efforts are not consistent between states making outcomes hard to measure and compare. However it is implausible to expect stability in regards to dealing with crime because it can be such an emotionally charged issue. There are multitudes of varying attitudes and opinions about criminal punishment. What is okay for some is most certainly too harsh or too lenient for others. In an attempt to contribute to the solution some communities have implemented workable alternatives to incarceration but it has not yet been widely implemented, and qualifying for these alternatives can be difficult. Typically these alternatives are only available to non-violent offenders who live in communities where these programs are offered.
One of these alternatives replaces imprisonment with intensive community restitution. This alternative varies among communities and can include fines, paid to the court or the victim, manual labor that benefits the community, and participating in community outreach programs. In these outreach programs offenders visit classrooms, community centers, at-risk youth and others distributing literature and making presentations on crime prevention and other criminal issues.
Community service options are not universal among communities. The type and length of sentences given for public service are imposed by judges or local juries according to the severity of the offense. The substance of these sentences tends to be based on the needs of the community, which is why they are apt to be markedly varied. Even though these sentences vary between communities, every state does have specifically implemented guidelines they following when considering an offender for public service. They ensure that these sentences are only given to specific classes of offenders usually first-time who judges and juries feel are capable of rehabilitation.
The state of New York (2007), for instance, has mandated that community service should be used "as a sanction for certain offenders in conjunction with specific dispositions imposed by a criminal court" (DCPA, 2007). The state determines eligible offenders by using several criteria such as the type and severity of the crime committed, prior offenses, and acknowledgement and remorse of and about the crime committed. Even with consideration of the above criteria the state ultimately deems that the imposed sentence of community service should be left in the hands of judges and juries. That is why the state's guidelines provide "considerable flexibility to recognize legitimate variations for local needs and circumstances" (DCPA, 2007).
Despite community service providing a viable alternative to contributing to the overcrowding of prisons, it has been met with a great deal of opposition. For those opposed to community service for offenders being sentenced to manual labor or other awareness or public service programs seems like an inappropriate sentence. . As Dan Kahan (2006) has written, "we ordinarily admire persons who restore dilapidated low-income housing, educate the retarded, furnish aid to the elderly, and the like" (website). Most feel that community service is more of a reward than an actual punishment and are not avid supporters of it. As Kahan (2006) goes on to note, however, the massive overcrowding has reached such proportions that it is becoming more difficult for local courts to forgo the service option, particularly when some good can come to the community. For this reason it is likely that community service will become a more largely used sanction regardless of the political and social opposition it still faces.
Another alternative to imprisonment involves incarceration in minimum security facilities such as local half-way houses or residential reentry centers (RRCs). In these facilities prisoners are allowed to work and attend certain activities but reside at the supervised facility. In some cases the offender can be sentenced to house arrest which is also a good alternative to facility sentencing. A widely known program is Florida's Community Control Program (FCCP), which so far is the largest and best incarnation of prison diversion efforts yet. This program allows certain offenders to be placed under house arrest while requiring them to submit to electronic surveillance (Netter, 2005). Arrangements such as these can be ideal for convicted drug abusers because they can be combined with clinical rehabilitation programs and the court can easily monitor the offender's progress ensuring that the offender is in fact being rehabilitated. One scholar, Brian Netter (2005), even argues that local custody programs can be more difficult than an actual prison sentence, since individuals who serve their sentences locally often experience a great deal of shame, which is the result of having to interact with the members of one's own community instead of with strangers in a prison. According to Netter, being forced to complete a prison term in one's own community far exceeds "the relative anonymity of isolated imprisonment or passive fine-paying by broadcasting to all" the fact that the individual in question has committed some sort of public offense (p. 187).
These community custody programs are endemic with pitfalls despite the fact that they do have the potential to reduce overcrowding in America's prisons. In The Virtual Prison, for instance, Julian Roberts (2004) notes a considerable body of scholarship indicating that community custody does not produce lower crime rates, or even rates of recidivism. As Roberts (2004) writes, "the proportion of offenders sent to prison did not decline significantly following the introduction of the" community control program in Florida (p. 119). Despite this, the failure of community custody is not in itself but most likely in the means in which it has been implemented. Specifically when they are not grouped with other alternative methods of rehabilitation such as drug counseling, therapy, and financial, physical, and emotional restitution these programs fail to contribute to reduced recidivism and crime rates.
There are other explanations as to why community custody programs do not succeed as well as they should. Roberts (2004) notes that when control mechanisms, such as electronic surveillance, are not rigidly enforced, these programs lose their potency. For the very same reason, these custody programs are continually met with the same strong political opposition as community service programs are. Most feel that these types of programs are not sufficiently punitive. In the author's own words, local confinement programs suffer from a general "lack of credibility that in large measure drives the political timidity with respect to the use of alternative sanctions" (Roberts, 2004, p. 31). Roberts also demonstrated through conducting interviews with form offenders that community custody can indeed be punitive, most interviewed individuals indicated that they would have preferred the anonymity of prison over the public humiliation that was often endured under house arrest. Community custody programs are not likely to see further implementation in America without substantially more political support. Many supporters of imprisonment believe that harsh and overcrowded living conditions act as an effective deterrent to crime, with this mentality it's likely that the issue of overcrowding will persist with longevity.
Institutional overcrowding appears to be a problem that is unique to the United States. Though crime certainly exists elsewhere around the globe, other countries and cultures hold radically divergent views about how to redress it. Whereas in the U. S. incarceration has come to be seen as a strictly punitive measure, most other cultures have developed a philosophy centered on rehabilitation. Consequently, the majority of national governments have established practices that are designed to prevent overcrowding in the first place. In particular, two very distinct models of justice have enabled these other governments to set aside jail space for the most violent or habitual of offenders, while finding alternative means of sanctioning criminal behavior among ordinary citizens.
One such model is that of restorative justice, an approach that allows offenders to "restore" the civic peace by making restitution to his or her victims (Golash, 2005). Restorative justice maintains that offenses are crimes against the private citizens while the American model views offenses as crimes against the state. From a perspective such as this social unity cannot be maintained by the state because the state is not actually involved in prosecution. Instead the state becomes a mediator per say. According to Leo Zaibert (2006), restorative justice became increasingly popular over the second half of the 20th century, as various governments began to foresee a potential for institutional overcrowding, and it is now practiced widely throughout Europe, as well as in Canada and Australia.
There are a variety of ways in which restorative justice can be implemented. One of the simplest means is through public apology and often some type of financial payment for damages incurred. Many times processes such as victim-offender mediation are applied, in which the victim and the offender are brought together with a third party to reach a suitable conclusion to the offense. In some instances, the victim and the offender meet face-to-face and, in others, the mediator acts as a go-between (Wallis & Tudor, 2008). Without regards to the means in which it is carried out, restorative justice can and has been a popular alternative to incarcerating non-violent offenders. Wallis and Tudor (2008) theorize that the basis for its success lies in the fact that traditional "justice focuses on punishing the offender, while the victim is often ignored (unless needed as a witness to secure a conviction)" (p. 13). Restorative justice, on the other hand, "offers the victim and the offender an opportunity to close the gap between them through communication, allowing as much of the harm to be repaired as possible and relationships to be restored" (Wallis & Tudor, 2008, p. 13).
For restorative justice programs to be able to succeed the victim and the offender must be able to reach some sort of agreement on the type and length of restitution for the crime, which at times is not such an easy feat. Restorative justice attempts to reduce and repair the harm of the crime through reparations. However when restitution cannot be agreed upon some places offer another option. This option is one of transformative justice. Instead of focusing on reparations, the emphasis is placed on enabling both parties to "transform" themselves beyond the present, through psychological and emotional healing, while also striving to guarantee that one party does seek further retribution against the other (Hames-Garcia, 2004). These types of programs are used in other countries throughout the western world such as Canada.
When transformative measures are implemented, reconciliation is not attempted. Rather it is universally acknowledged that the past cannot be changed. Each individual involved is provided with the essential social and community services that give them the skills needed to move forward. Typically the offender's background and living environment are examined by some type of official to help determine the contributing factors that drove the offender to commit the crime. After these factors are investigated, recommendations for social assistance are made to both the victim and the offender. Programs for the offender may include drug rehabilitation, job skill or educational training, and psychological counseling among others. Programs for the victim are more centered on counseling or other types of therapeutic aid, financial and emotional.
The aim of transformative justice is to do exactly what it implies, transform society. It does this through providing means for the victim and offender to rehabilitate and move forward. That is because transformative justice views criminal behavior as the natural outgrowth of other social problems, such as poverty and the lack of education (Hames-Garcia, 2004). The underlying philosophy of transformative justice is that individuals commit crimes because they suffer from the destructive effects of inequality and deprivation and not solely because they are deviant.
The theory of transformative justice maintains that the only way to truly avert crime is to resolve the contributing social problems that cause it. Thusly advocates of the transformative justice method place greater importance on crime reduction through widespread social programs.
In our society, alternative models of incarceration are not readily available because the focus remains mainly on punitive and retributive justice, and not often do alternative models receive the political backing they need to bring them to fruition. It can be difficult to envision methods of restorative and transformative justice becoming widely accepted in American society when they are met with resistance at every step particularly at the political level. Even despite this lack of political backing and the widespread belief that prisoners should be punished for their crimes, the overcrowding problem may one day soon reach a point where there is no other choice but to result to more alternative methods for incarceration.
There are two fundamental steps which could drastically reduce the increasing influx of inmates in America. Legislators need to reassess mandatory sentencing laws for non-violent and drug offenses. Rather than incarcerating drug offenders with violent inmates, they should be given the rehabilitation that they need. This is not to say that drug offenders should be given a break or that their drug abuse is acceptable but rather that substance abuse is condition that needs medical and psychological treatment. Our nation is confronted with a large percent of American who abuse narcotics, both legally and illegally and strict and punitive drug sentencing laws have had a detrimental effect on society. These laws are contributing to the massive overcrowding issue by incarcerating thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens. The depth of rehabilitation needed by the offenders should be considered by lawmakers before we blindly condemn thousands of offenders who need rehabilitation to a lengthy prison sentence.
In addition, mentally ill and unstable inmates should be housed and treated in more appropriate facilities. Grouping mentally ill and unstable offenders with violent inmates raises many ethical and constitutional concerns. Ethically speaking it is potentially hazardous to incarcerate the mentally ill and unstable with the general prison population as the consequence of such inappropriate mingling could be violent and devastating to both parties. In regards to the Constitution, incarceration of mentally ill individuals can cause many issues since many of these individuals may be incapable of understanding their sentence let alone the crime they committed. For this reason, imprisonment of mentally ill and unstable individuals borders on being arbitrary. Finally, as Amanda Pustilnik (2005) points out, "the use of the criminal system (for the mentally ill) is irrational because the massive costs to confine nonviolent and nonoffending adults and children are not offset by the traditional benefits" (p. 219). In simple summation nothing is gained from such an abuse of the criminal justice system.
As straightforward as these two suggestions seem, realization of them will be much more difficult. With regards to repealing the drug laws, the nation's political leadership is not likely to go against the prevailing mood by striking down legal statutes that enjoy a great deal of popular approval. With regards to the issue of the mentally ill, there is simply neither sufficient awareness nor concern for judges and juries to even feel the slightest tinge of constitutional concern. Ultimately, American society will have to develop an alternative understanding of prison and its purpose before either of these changes can be fully implemented. Prison is generally seen as a place where lawbreakers go to be punished. Until society is ready to accept a broader understanding of what justice actually entails, then the problem of overcrowding is only going to exacerbate.
Yet these are ethical considerations that must be taken into account. Substance abusers and the mentally ill should not be behind bars, after all. The most appropriate setting for both groups is in treatment centers, where they can receive the necessary assistance. Unfortunately, society continues to lock them away in ever increasing numbers, viewing both groups as morally flawed. At some point down the road, however, the issue of overcrowding is going to be resolved in one way or another. Either policymakers will find a reasonable way of freeing up jail space, or institutions will be forced to release criminals who have been hardened and made violent by their time behind bars. Should the latter scenario become a reality, then individual citizens will pay the price for our overcrowded prisons. For that reason, it is imperative that lawmakers work alongside voters to construct a more realistic view of crime and punishment.