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Prison overcrowding is when the demand for space in prisons in a jurisdiction exceeds the capacity for prisoners in the place. Prison overcrowding can occur when the rate at which people are sentenced to prison exceeds the rate at which other prisoners are released or die, thereby freeing up prison space, and new prisons cannot be built fast enough to handle the additions.
Studies have shown that two types of offenders are responsible for the majority of sentences to prisons: drug offenders and recidivists.
The United States nation has a history of punishing minor offenses with major punishments; in addition we institute a ‘zero-tolerance’ method of policing, mandatory sentencing laws and have essentially taken away the ability for a judge to exercise common sense judgment when sentencing an offender. As a nation and a people, we live by our Constitution and Bill of Rights, but what happens when due process and procedure get to the point where using common sense is totally lost and everything that happens in our judicial system is based solely on modus operandi? “The criminal law should once again be more like the common law, with judges and juries not merely finding fact, but making law on the basis of universal principles of fairness, circumstance and seriousness and crafting penalties to the exigencies of the crime".
Possible problems caused by prison overcrowding include:
- Stress among inmates and staff
- Increased risk of violence
- Spread of disease
- Reduction in sentences given to those being sentenced to or already in prison, thereby releasing potentially dangerous offenders into society
At the end of 2010, the state and federal correctional facilities housed over 1.6 million inmates. At least seven states are currently at 25% over capacity with the highest being Alabama at 196% and closely followed by Illinois at 144% above maximum capacity. Nineteen states in total are operating above maximum capacity. Operating prisons over maximum capacity is not only expensive and inconvenient but also, extremely dangerous. In 2005, 53% of inmates in state prisons were committed for violent offenses. Prison riots are prevalent in an overcrowded prison environment because of vast discontent among the inmate population.
Some of the solutions to prison overcrowding focus on increasing prison capacity. This includes the construction of new prisons, and the conversion of space within existing facilities that has been used for other purposes into prison space.
Other solutions that have been employed involve keeping offenders, particularly those who commit non-violent or less violent offenses, out of prison. Alternate forms of sentencing are used, including probation, community service, restitution, diversion programs, and house arrest. Additionally, existing inmates may face early release from parole and other credits.
Early release poses the hazard that a potentially dangerous offender could be released into society and be able to do harm.
- Gopnik, Adam. "The Caging of America".