How the Justice System Affects Prison Overcrowding
Studies have indicated that the size of prison populations in the U.S. increased radically in the past four decades. The number increased by five times from around 320,000 in 1980 to more than 1.6 million in 2009 (Glaze and Bonczar, 2009). A study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) of the period 2006-2011 observed that overcrowding in prisons increased over the period. The study highlighted that an increase in the number of prisoners corresponded with actions by a tendency by some states to cut their prison populations, lower rates of crime, and cut prison budgets. However, an increase in the population of prisoners still happened. The study further highlighted that, as of September 2011, federal prisons experience a 39 percent over capacity (Gilna, 2014). A clear consensus that emerges from these studies is that the growth is largely motivated by policy receptiveness instead of criminal behavior, although there is much less agreement regarding particular ways through which a range of sentencing policies passed in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to growth (Gilna, 2014; Glaze and Bonczar, 2009). The specificity with which how justice system policies and sentencing laws affect prison populations is an indicator that justice system policies and decisions may be affecting prison overcrowding. This paper discusses how the justice system affects prison overcrowding.
Justice system policies and sentencing laws contribute to the variability of prison overcrowding. According to a study by the Sentencing Project (2016), the new sentencing policies that characterized the era of “War on Drugs” in the 1980s and ‘90s, largely contributed to the swell in prison populations, as a result of offenses associated with drug use and abuse. Indeed, since the onset of the era in 1980, the number of Americans who were apprehended for drug offenses increased dramatically to more than 469,540 in 2015 from approximately 40,900 in 1980. Also, inflexible sentencing laws like mandatory minimums have extended the prison terms of drug offenders, which has only served to augment the level of prison overcrowding. For instance, in1986, the numbers of convicts released after having served their time for drug offense were forced to spend two more years in prison. This increased in 2004, as individuals convicted of drug offenses have to serve up to 62 months. These policies increase the number of convicted drug offenders in prisons. In fact, a study by the Sentencing Project (2016) estimated that individuals convicted for drug offenses comprised nearly 50 percent of the prison population, at the federal level.
Figure 1. Prisoners in Federal Prisons for Drug-related Offenses, 1980-2015 (The Sentencing Project, 2016).
The high rate of felony convictions also contributes to overcrowding of prisons. Here, felony conviction rate is concerned with the ratio of felony arrests to ultimate convictions depending on the judicial decision‐making. Prison overcrowding may emanate from a steady rise in the number of people ultimately convicted of a crime, which ultimately develops into a culture of overcrowding. Also, it may emanate from collective participation in violent crimes, including during genocide or gang-related violence (Albrecht, n.d.). Overcrowding is largely influenced by the excessive conviction of prisoners, or heavier use of imprisonment than other forms of punishment. This was the case in California, whereby a high rate of convictions led to prison overcrowding in the 2000s. Much of these were largely attributed to “determinate sentencing” in California (Albrecht, n.d.). In fact, it characterized a failed justice system and policies in California because of “determinate sentencing,” which was made up of confinement sentences with fixed periods contingent on the crime committed. This form of sentencing limited judicial discretion to pronounce sentences. Ultimately, it made many offenders be convicted with mandatory minimum prison terms (MacDonald, 2013). On the other hand, courts may also influence the reduced population of prisons. For instance, when California was facing the problem of overcrowding, a court decision obliged the prisons to reduce the prison population by releasing up to 55,000 prisoners over a period of three years. Therefore, a high rate of felony convictions leads to prison overcrowding, while a low rate of convictions reduces the population of prisoners (Caudill et al., 2014).
The explicit manner in which the justice system policies and sentencing laws affect prison populations indicates that the justice system policies and decisions may be affecting prison overcrowding. Justice system policies and sentencing laws contribute to the variability of prison overcrowding. Also, inflexible sentencing laws like mandatory minimums have extended the prison terms of drug offenders, which has only served to augment the level of prison overcrowding. For instance, “determinate sentencing,” has limited judicial discretion to pronounce sentences and contributed to a greater rate of felony convictions in some jurisdictions like California.
Albrecht, H. (n.d.). Prison Overcrowding: Finding effective solutions. Strategies and best practices against overcrowding in correctional facilities.
Caudill, J., Trulson, C., Marquart, J., Pattern, R., Thomas, M. & Anderson, S. (2014). Correctional destabilization and jail violence: The consequences of prison depopulation legislation. Journal of Criminal Justice 42, 500–506.
Gilna, D. (2014). Report: Increase in federal prison population, overcrowding. Prison Legal News. Retrieved from https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2014/may/19/report-increase-federal-prison-population-overcrowding/
Glaze, L. & Bonczar, T. (2009). Probation and parole in the U.S., 2008. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, NCJ 228230, December
MacDonald, M. (2013). Reducing california’s overcrowded prison population. Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science, 1(1), 1, 7-10.
The sentencing Project. (2016). Trends in U.S. corrections. Retrieved from http://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf