The problem of overcrowded prisons in the United States

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

To begin, my third writing project, the Synthesis Paper, I am going to reevaluate my target audience. Since I am writing this for a class my audience will be all my fellow English 111 classmates, and my professor. I am not going to assume ages, but in fact figure this is a wide range from 18 on up. This is the first paper I will be writing on a topic of my choice so I do not fully expect most of my classmates to be incredibly informed on the subject. Some may be more informed than I, where others may not even truly realize this is a major issue that exists. Throughout the paper I hope to show the problem from all sides, help explain everything that the issue encompasses, and then help me detail why people argue over this issue. One thing we do all have in common is that we all right now have been researching an issue and not taking sides but are to inform only on all sides of the issue. Maybe someone will actually learn from my paper, but in this first draft I hope people do pay attention to the content to make sure it flows nicely, and that I clearly show the dividing line on this issue.

The problem of overcrowded prisons in the United States is serious and widespread, but so politically charged that many states are facing simultaneous suggestions of opposing reform measures. Due to prisons filling up and over loading their capacity which results in funding issues, standards of care, and control the United States Government again and again is trying to find a solution that can reorganize the justice system. However, something that many people overlook, states may reform their prisons differently, and with various groups supporting the polar opposite solutions to this some states are becoming increasingly diverse in their justice reform. Through this paper I want to explore the severity of this issue, and then move into the offered solutions, such as mandatory sentencing laws for one side, and rehab facilities for patients on the other.

First, what exactly is prison reform? After researching various books, articles, and websites I've come up with this as a definition: Prison reform is the attempt to improve conditions involving prisons in anyway, which involves prisoner care, prison sizes, security, etc. The reform of the policies enforcing such standards is also important, referring to the practice of creating new regulations and practices, changing the existing ones, and administer new activities related to prisons. Does this truly affect that many people? Yes, in fact more than 1 in every 100 Americans are incarcerated, 2,297,400 million in fact, and this is a 500% increase in the last 30 years. Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated, in prison or jail over 60% of them are some sort of racial or ethical minority. This gives the United States a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world. (Project) Yet, prisoners hardly ever serve the full term they are given due to such high incarceration rates, and a finite number of prisons. In fact, "45 percent of a states sentence for a mean prison stint of two years and four months, and 85 percent of a federal sentence for a stint of four and five months." (Lin) Even though more people are being incarcerated, they end up serving less time then sentenced how can we compromise this better and not hinder the public's safety?

Why not just mandate everyone of the same crime to the same sentence? Some people argue that "because standards of conduct and ways of doing things differ from society to society, there can never be one single standard for all people everywhere, and that we must make ethical decision based on each situation." (Banks) One way to address this overcrowding is through accelerated release programs. In accelerated release programs, eligible prisoners may be released ahead of their sentenced release dates through the application of good time credit, intense community supervision, or other methods. These programs have been put in place throughout the country at various points throughout the last 40 years. One of the states that have done this study is the state of Illinois to help control its inmate population. This study showed that prisoners that were released early did not have a higher percentage of returning to prison, but in fact showed a very little difference in the return-to-prison rates for nonviolent offenders. "By 1983 the Illinois prison population was reduced by approximately 2,500 as a direct result of early release." (Guzman, Krisberg and Tsukida) To go along with this early release program, some states have started rehabilitation activities like the California Department of Corrections Rehabilitation whose goal is to "create strong partnerships with local government, community based providers, and the communities to which offenders return in order to provide services that are critical to offenders' success on parole." (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations) In order to achieve these savings without compromising public safety, CDCR is developing new ways of delivering rehabilitation programs to reach as many inmates as possible with reduced funding. However, is there another way to deal with prison reform without releasing prisoners early? Or softening their treatment which is how some people view reform?

With the rise in the crime rate in recent years, short sentences are a major concern of most Americans. A popular new sentencing structure, coined from an American pastime favorite, is the 'Three Strikes' Crime Laws. This new law mandates long or even life sentences for people convicted of their third serious felony, such as murder, rape or burglary. An overwhelming 84% of Americans say that they favor laws that impose life sentences for those who are convicted of three serious felony crimes, according to a January 1994 Time/Cable News Network poll.( The strong support for such laws among Americans signals the growing fear of crime, and a declining tolerance for rehabilitation, in the U.S., which has one of the highest rates of violent crime among advanced industrialized countries. Frustrated with what many have called the "revolving door" policy of the criminal justice system, under which hardened criminals are given lenient prison terms, many Americans are demanding tougher sentencing laws. Three-strikes laws have become one of the most popular crime policy options in the nation. Also called "three-time loser" laws, three-strikes legislation is designed to ensure that career criminals, for whom previous imprisonment has had little or no remedial effect, are never allowed to victimize members of society again. With this stricture sentencing comes where to put the prisoners. Some people think rehabilitation programs put the prisoners' rights ahead of citizens' security. One example of this is in reference to Rico Marzano who only got convicted for four-first degree murders instead of six since the unborn children of the pregnant women he murdered did not die outside the womb. "It wasn't his murder of two pregnant women and their husbands that landed Rico Marzano in Maryland's supermax prison, but his second escape attempt." (Gavora) To some people this is appalling that a murder of such degree would not already be in a super maximum security prison, but too many people see those as inhumane and the last resort possible. This is where mandatory minimum sentences comes in to play since this is supposed to "deter criminal activity by maximizing the certainty and predictability of incarceration of crimes that pose serious threats to the nation's quality of life.." (Berman) To apply this, groups would have fought that Marzano should have been in a maximum security all along since killing four people should be seen as a maximum threat to society.

Even though studies are being done, and the United States is using thousands up thousands of citizens as test subjects this prison reform structure is not something that can happen overnight. One of the main flaws that I kept seeing pop up in my research was the wide difference in state programs. It seems that depending on which state you commit a crime truly depends on how you will be sentenced not the crime you commit. Another factor is how much the media gets a hold of the issue, Barkow states it well with "It is almost impossible for the millions of people serving noncapital sentences to get the public's attention about injustices in noncapital sentencing law, even though there are many." (Barkow) Even though the case may not grab the public's attention that does not mean the Supreme Court should stay out of the case. This has caused much of our prison's overcrowding due to the dissimilarity between state sentencing. The causes proposed to deal with this range from early release programs, to rehabilitation facilities in and out of prison, to a 'three-strikes' crime and mandatory sentencing structures.

Words Cited

Banks, Cyndi. Criminal Justice Ethics: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles : SAGE, c2009. 2nd ed.

Barkow, Rachel E. "The Court of Life and Death: The Two Tracks of Constitutional Sentencing Law and The Case for Uniformity." Michigan Law Review. New York University, 8 Sept. 2008.

Berman, Douglas. Federal Sentencing Reporter. Berkeley: The Vera Institute of Justice, 2011.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. "Adult Rehabilitation." March 2000. California New Start. 8 March 2011 <>.

Gavora, Jessica, and Elizabeth Alexander. "Is the Justice Department putting prisoners' rights ahead of citizens' security?" Insight on the News 28 Oct. 1996: 26+. Military and Intelligence Collection. Web. 4 Mar. 2011.

Guzman, Carolina, Barry Krisberg and Chris Tsukida. Accelerated Release: A Literature Review. 2008: National Council on Crime and Delinquency., 2008.

Lin, Ann Chih. Reform in the Making the Implementation of Social Policy in Prison. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Project, Sentencing. "Disenfranchisement News." 8 February 2001. Sentencing Project. 2 March 2011 <>.