The Incarceration Pandemic: Research Papers Example

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Crime, Prison, Law, Criminal Justice, Drugs, Social Issues, Supreme Court, War

Pages: 7

Words: 1925

Published: 2020/10/19

Discussing the Issues of Overcrowding in American Prisons

The American criminal justice system is presently facing a very serious problem. People continue to commit crimes, law enforcement continues to arrest perpetrators and the court continues to convict them. Case after case, defendant after defendant and guilty verdict after guilty verdict for crimes that range of petty larceny to First Degree Murder, which results in more and more prisoners being incarcerated every single day. Hence where the problem lies, so many prisoners serving long –term sentences, new prisoners arriving, and previous prisoner returning to the prison that the facilities have been and continue to be incredibly overcrowded. There are millions of people incarcerated all across the country and the number is not getting better, in fact it is getting progressively higher (Wagner & Sakala, 2014). Prison overcrowding is a problem for almost every state in the country, with the greatest issues in California and Texas. The more inmates the more space is needed to house them, to feed them, and to provide healthcare for each of them is incredibly costly. That funding simply does not exist so expanding or constructing and opening a new prison facility is presently not an option either; there is need for effective resolution. However, the major causes of prisoner overcrowding can be identified and there are a number of possible measures that can be taken to improve the situation, lower the unfavorable statistics, and end the problem of prison overcrowding in the United States. Given the research, studies, and statistics resolving the issues and solving the problems can only be found in reforming the criminal justice system by lowering mandatory sentences in certain crimes, consider alternatives in the cases of non-violent crime, and offering greater preparation and transition services to lessen the rates of recidivism.


Since the beginnings of human society there have been rules and those who break them. When those crimes result in theft, harm, and death there is a need for consequences and repercussions for those actions. The severity of which will be dependent upon the crime committed. The United States criminal justice system was founded on the well-intended goal of providing severe enough punishments to deter others, set fair and humane consequences for the perpetrators and protect the public from the criminal actions of those perpetrators. Incarceration is a secure and sufficient means of accomplishing those goals. It protects the public and deprives the inmates of their freedoms, which generally speaking is an effective form of punishment (Wagner & Sakala, 2014). Once their prison terms have been served, they have “paid their debt” and can now return productively to the society. While effective in many cases, it has had a great many unforeseen consequences that, while unintentional, are now creating a problem for the criminal justice system. Prison overcrowding is now a national conundrum; there are simply too many new prisoners, returning inmates, and criminal justice polices in need of new reforms, while the number of professional staff continues to decrease, that the situation is becoming worse.


Overcrowding in prisons is a very serious issue and can lead to many negative consequences. The effect of overcrowded prisons is detrimental to the inmates because it places more inmates in smaller and smaller quarters, which can lead to disagreements and violence. It also often places offenders incarcerated for minor offenses under the influence of much more hardened criminals. Finally, it limits the available services, medical and therapeutic approaches that some prisoner might benefit from. There is also a growing danger for the overcrowded prisons staff. Guards are even more greatly outnumbered than they have ever been before. In the cases of prisoner riots or revolt, however unlikely, could leave law enforcement at a great disadvantage (Davidson, 2012). That said understanding the issue of present prison overcrowding and how to change it, it is necessary to understand exactly what factors are the responsible causes for the problem today. There are four key contributing elements that modern prison overcrowding can be attributed to.

The War On Drugs:

The War on Drugs was an initiative that began in the early 1970s under the Nixon administration and continued into the 1980s and the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Essentially the war on drugs was intended to make the punishment for selling drugs, using drugs and possessing drugs so severe that no one would be willing to risk it and therefore crushing the illegal drug industry. Many, to this day, will agree that the war on drugs was an immense failure. While the severe punishments and mass incarcerations were implemented, the illegal drug trade has continued to flourish; the deterring effect was never truly realized (Miles, 2014).More so, the war on drugs policies were administering decades long sentences for possessing or using very small amounts of the substances, in some cases, there were marijuana users with longer jail sentences that rapists, child molesters and cold-blooded murderers. There are still a large number of long-term inmates that sentences have never been reviewed and reconsidered.

Three-Strikes Law:

There is a reason that the state of California has the highest percentages of incarcerated adults than any other states. While the war on drugs policies was implemented in the 1990s ‘a war on crime” was a new initiative (MacDonald, 2013). It allowed for the three strikes law to be implemented. The three-strike law requires that if one commits a third consecutive felony they would face a possible sentence of 25 to life. This, once again, was intended to be a crime deterrent that could lower the recidivism rates of released convicts. However, the three-strike law has never been effective in deterring crime but it continues to add more and more inmates to a permanent residence in many prison facilities. Of course, as is being seen today, three strikes law has been instrumental in adding to the problem of prison overpopulation. The policy was softened in 2012, but the damage, at least in regard to overcrowding, had already been done (Staples, 2012). It has also been misused; too often applied to third strike cases that did not necessarily qualify a third-strike crime. The problem is that 75% of “2nd strikers” and 50% of “3rd strikers” were being sentenced to life for non-violent and less serious offenses (Smith, 2013).

Recidivism and Lack of Transitional Aid:

Recidivism, or the act of returning to prison after release on a new charge, is all too common in the American Criminal Justice System. While, there are a number of hardened criminals who sincerely have disregard for laws and no consideration for others who have no intention of becoming an upstanding citizen and will happily commit more crimes and face continuing prison terms. However, there are many released inmates who have “learned their lesson” and are ready to live more productive lives. Unfortunately, they may not have that chance. Despite the idea that a prison term is a form of “paying a debt to society” and now you are free, that is not the experience of many recently released inmates. Because of their records, parole status and regardless of the crime they committed will be denied employment opportunities, housing options, and, sometimes, after being incarcerated are incapable of integrating back into society (MacDonald, 2013). In these cases, most feel forced into committing more crimes in order to have an income and stay alive. This causes a huge number of prisoners to continue to return time and time again to prison; in states, like California, can result in a life sentence.

Economics & Funding:

As with all things, much of the issue and solution involves money. There is simply not enough funding available to build more prisons to accommodate the ever-increasing number of prisoners being added every year. In the same way, the now overcrowded prison, are incredibly understaffed. The number of guards, medical staff and other personnel needed to meet the needs of such facilities. Much of prison support stems from taxpayer monies (MacDonald, 2013). Many Americans are struggling economically as it is and the idea of allocating more funds to house, feed and benefit people who have broken the law, sometimes in the worst possible ways, and are now incarcerated. Prison is not supposed to be a happy place that encourages continuing statistics.
Fortunately, there are a number of options and reforms that could be considered in order to lower the overcrowding statistics; some are a bit more controversial than others. According to experts, it would only take a small amount of changed the sentencing and reformed previous policies, could, ultimately, improve the statistics, but, also, save the United States, more than, $900 million every year (Moore, 2009). Sadly, very little has changed since the 2009, and the problems in the prisons continue to rise. There are several suggestions that could make a difference, but do face some ethical concerns, and therefore prevent such measures from being fully embraced.

Less Inmates Sentenced and Less Time

In this modern era it would be advantageous for reforms be implemented to lessen the overcrowding issue. Sending less drug users and non-violent offenders arbitrarily into a prison environment and in the cases where prison is decided, the length of sentencing should not be as long. Together these measures would save the United States, approximately, $4 billion dollars a year (Knafo, 2013).

Greater Discretion Offered to Judges

This move would allow judges to look at more cases on an individual basis. It would release the judges from having to forcibly adhere to the certain arbitrary sentencing requirements in certain cases, like drug cases, and allow for the alternatives that mandatory sentencing laws like those developed in the “war on drugs” and like the Three-Strike law in California (Knafo, 2013).This will save billions yearly and free more than 100,000 beds in the prisons all across the country.

Eliminating Disparities in Drug Cases

There are many people who are serving higher sentences than others for a crime involving what is essentially the same drug. Possession and use of crack cocaine carries a much higher sentence than someone possessing and using powdered cocaine. The drugs are essentially the same. Laws and policies like this that have been allowed to continue are only adding to the overcrowding unnecessarily (Knafo, 2013).

Drug Rehabilitation Instead of Incarceration and Release for Good Behavior

It is advisable to offer the offender’s who are, in fact, addicted to drugs the opportunity to have shorter sentences and spend less time within the prison system. In the same vein, allowing more non-violent and drug-related offenders to have the opportunity to earn early release based upon their good behavior. This is one of the suggestions that do raise controversy. Many Americans are opposed to “good behavior opportunities.” These people still committed crimes and should not be offered leniency under any circumstances. For this reason, this approach has only been loosely implemented in certain low profile cases. Together these options would save, approximately, $230 million every year (Knafo, 2013).

Privatizing Prisons

This is an avenue that would allow individuals or corporations to own a prison and are then responsibility to provide the majority of the facilities funding. This would release the public tax payers from contributing to the need of inmates and alleviate the costs of the prisons system from the overall criminal justice system. This alternative raises some “red flags” ethically. The concern is that private prisons would not have the government regulating and monitoring their behaviors. Prisoners could be mistreated and this creates issues with allowing the private ownership of prisons. The money burden is removed from the government.

Release the Elderly

An initiative has been made to endorse the release older and aging prisoners who are far less of a threat upon the public. However, this too, creates arguments and debates. Some feel that a life sentence is a life sentence, and that that should not change because they are old. Of course, the proponents argue if a prisoner is now in their eighties and struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, then they are not learning anything or remember why they are there. These people do not know who they are anymore, let alone the crime they committed and the people, the government and the inmates are really not benefiting from the continuing incarceration. This would save the United States millions (Knafo, 2013).


In the end prison overcrowding is a serious issue. One that is placing offenders, law enforcement, and prison staffs at greater danger than ever before. It is obvious that the war on drugs legislature is rather antiquated and requires reforms. It should be equally clear that the three-strike law, and those like them, have been misused and misapplied and has done nothing but the make the inmate statistics worse. It is a time where strong changes are needed. There are alternatives and options on the table that are deserving of serious consideration. People who commit crimes, particularly the most heinous crimes like murder, rape and child abuse, do need to be appropriately punished and face the consequences of their acts. It is necessary, however, for that punishment to fit the crime. This required the American criminal justice system is long overdue for serious reparation, rehabilitation and reformation. Doing so would require less costs, allow the courts to keep long-term prison sentences for the most violent and dangerous of offenders and finally alter the sentences on certain offenses. It is the stagnating laws and policies of the war on drugs era and the abuse and overuse of three-strike-type laws that has primarily brought the U.S. to this point. We need to put aside what is old and make room for more modern alternatives that can have a significant impact upon this social and criminal justice problem,


Davidson, J. (2012, October 15). Prison crowding undermines safety, report says. The Washington Post. Retrieved from
Knafo, S. (2013, November 8). 10 ways to reduce prison overcrowding and save taxpayers millions. The Huffington Post, 1. Retrieved from
MacDonald, M. (2013). Reducing california's overcrowded prison population. Themis: Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science, 1(1), 7-23.
Miles, K. (2014). Just how much the war on drugs impacts our overcrowded prisons, in one chart. The Huffington Post, 1. Retrieved from
Moore, S. (2009, February 10). The prison overcrowding fix . The New York Times. Retrieved from
Smith, B. (2013, October 7). Changing prison overcrowding: Sentencing only violent & repeat offenders. Hubpages, 1. Retrieved from
Staples, B. (2012, November 24). California horror stories and the 3-strikes law. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Wagner, P. & Sakala, L. (2014). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie . Prison Policy Initiative. 1. Retrieved from

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