Term Paper: Prison Overcrowding

Pages: 25 (6511 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Criminal Justice  ·  Buy This Paper

Prison Overcrowding: Empirical Analysis of Alternatives to Mandatory Sentencing and Community Sanctions

Theoretical Approaches

History Incarceration and Prison Overcrowding

Who's in Prison

Reasons for Overcrowding

This study focuses on exploring the relationship between prison overcrowding and adaptation of the situational environment in which crime occurs. Specifically the researcher will explore whether a reduction in incarceration of non-violent offenders combined with provisions for more rehabilitation and community support within at risk communities may contribute to reduced incarceration rates, better flow and reduced overcrowding. To achieve these goals the researcher proposes a triangular approach that will combine multiple research methods. The author hypothesizes that adaptations to the incarceration approach including use of more community sanctions and introduction of more rehabilitation programs within communities, combined with shorter terms for non-violent offenders will result in better flow within prisons and reduced overcrowding. This in turn will likely enhance the prison environment and provide more funding for other criminal justice activities. This study will help stimulate future research into alternative approaches to crime and retribution.

Introduction

This research study will explore the relationship between non-violent incarceration for petty offenses and prison overcrowding. Specifically the author argues that increasing incarceration of non-violent offenders for drug related offenses is leading to uncontrollable prison overcrowding. Second to this, the author hypothesizes that more community sanctions and rehabilitation programs for petty offenders and reduced sentencing lengths for non-violent offenders will help improve the flow of criminals in prisons and help decrease prison overcrowding. The author also acknowledges the relationship between mandatory sentencing and prison overcrowding. This phenomena will be studied to complement the primary research conducted in this study.

Gottfredson & McConville (1987) admit that prison and jail crowding is "a major national problem" that cannot be disputed, with prison populations continuing to grow since the time of their research and publication. Further, even from the mid 1980s inmate populations often "exceeded cell capacity in almost all states" by significant amounts in many cases (p. 3). Many including members of national criminal justice agencies describe this phenomena as a "crisis in corrections" (Gottfredson & McConville, p. 3). Prison overcrowding leads to problems in and of itself, but also contributes to other problems including the physical decay of older prisons and jails and the inability of corrections institutions to staff jails and prisons to a capacity necessary to provide routine surveillance, medical care and other services to increasing populations of inmates.

While much of the research surrounding prison overcrowding addresses fiscal concerns, equally important are concerns related to increases or patterns in crime and crime control policies (Gottfredson & McConville, 1987). Thus it makes sense to examine prison policy and overcrowding from many different angles. One must explore not only whether crime is increasing but also whether the need to incarcerate or provide retribution for certain crimes is necessary in all cases (Gottfredson & McConville, 1987).

Problem Statement

Prison overcrowding is causing inexplicable concerns for law enforcement agents, communities and legislators. Despite empirical evidence showing prisons are being filled beyond capacity, few concrete solutions have been developed to help reduce prison overcrowding. While many have proposed rehabilitation programs to replace retributive justice, not enough empirical evidence exists supporting the efficacy of such programs among certain populations including non-violent offenders. Expected overcrowding in the future is complicating matters for criminal justice authorities who already lack the funds and manpower to handle increasing incarceration rates. Researchers have continually sought to identify not only the causes of prison overcrowding but also potential solutions. This research study will explore the problem of overcrowding by examining whether reducing incarceration for non-violent offenders and providing situational alternatives may reduce criminal activity and enable better management of crime and prison overcrowding. This study is unique from other studies in that it will not simply report on prison overcrowding, but suggest alternatives to traditional retributive approaches to crime, and help explain why prison overcrowding is occurring and suggest tangible solutions to this problem.

Background to Problem

McCormick (2000) cites Elliot Currie's study on Crime and Punishment in America, suggesting the United States has for many years been "engaged in an unprecedented, unparalleled and largely unnoticed social experiment" which includes maintaining order with the threat of imprisonment (p.508). Further the author's notes that during the last decade the rates of incarceration have risen to epic proportions, with the total U.S. prisoners in reaching in the millions by the year 2000 alone (McCormick, 2000). In fact, the number of federal prisoners between 1972 and 1998 according to McCormick (2000) more than "sextupled, growing from less than 200,000 to over 1.2 million" and that number continues to rise at alarming rates (p. 508).

The severity of the current problem is evidenced in a recent article printed in The Washington Times (2005) which notes that overcrowding in the jail in Washington D.C. has led to the need to rent space near the jail to house criminals; further the article suggests lack of funding is contributing to agencies inability to fill 47 current staff positions including those necessary to oversee criminals and prisoners. According to the article roughly 35 new inmates are incarcerated daily, and while the jail is already holding hundreds more prisoners than its capacity warrants.

Marciniak notes that until recently the prison system within the U.S. was considered the "fastest growing industry" growing from roughly 500,000 total prisoners in the late 1970s to more than 2 million in 2001 alone (Marciniak, p. 10). Complicating this issue are the ever increasing incarceration rates among U.S. citizens. World studies of prisoners suggest the United States holds "25% of the globe's prisoners" (Marciniak, p. 10). This is due largely to a criminal justice system that tends to punish criminals for their crimes rather than work on reforming criminal behavior.

Thousands of new prisons have been built in the United States in the last three decades, yet nearly all of these new prisons are already overcrowded (Marciniak, 2002). Due to overcrowding, prisoners face cramped conditions. Many for example must sleep on floors while other inmates are sometimes housed in temporary tents (Marciniak, 2002). While some politicians still argue the solution lies in building more prisons (Marciniak, 2002) others argue that more reform is necessary to help reduce crime or at minimum the rates of recidivism. The U.S. Department of Justice until recently has supported its stance that tougher sentencing is necessary, citing research suggesting violent crime in the United States was down during the 1990s (Marciniak, 2002). For this reasons many believe rehabilitation is not helpful, but retribution for crimes is (Marciniak, 2002).

Significance of Study

While very few studies have explored the relation between sentencing guidelines and prison populations (Marvell, 1995) few have specifically explored the relationship between sentencing and non-violent offenders and the relationship between rehabilitation and mentally ill incarcerates. Even fewer have examined alternatives to retribution including community-based programs that work to reform criminals before they commit repeat offenses or initial crimes. This study will provide researchers with detailed explanations that define the exact causes of overcrowding and assess whether changes in the criminal justice system will result in a reduction in overcrowding based on empirical evidence. This research may provide the foundation for future research geared toward more community sanctions and programs that will reduce sentence lengths and encourage more consideration of the situational environment contributing to criminal behaviors.

Few studies have also explored the impacts mandatory sentencing have on prison populations related to violent offenders. Due to time constraints however, this study will focus its efforts on exploring how mandatory sentencing, sentence lengths and related factors impact non-violent offenders. This is based on concrete evidence supporting increasing rates of incarceration for first time and petty offenders, or those engaged in non-malevolent activities including substance abuse. There is ample evidence suggesting much attention is needed specifically among this population if the subject of prison overcrowding is to be approached and solved (Marvell, 1995).

Theoretical Approaches

There are many theoretical approaches to reviewing prison control and overcrowding. It is important that prison overcrowding is considered in a situational perspective to gather the most insight about potential solutions to prison overcrowding as well as to understand the possible causes of prison overcrowding. Wortley (2002) provides a comprehensive overview suggesting prison overcrowding and problems related to prison control be reviewed from a "situational prevention perspective" (p. 3). This perspective is supported by evidence suggesting situational prevention initiatives are more helpful for reducing criminal behavior in multiple settings than other approaches and initiatives including in some cases, retribution (Wortley, 2002).

The situational perspective outlined by Wortley (2002) and others (Clarke, 1997; Poyner, 1993) suggests a new paradigm for reviewing criminal behavior, that focuses on shifting the attention from personal attributes or the disposition of criminals to the features or environment in which crime occurs that may encourage criminal behavior (Wortley, p. 3). This suggests that modifying the environment or providing systematic support for individuals in at risk environments may help mitigate behavior and decrease the likelihood that criminal offenses will occur. This approach requires… [END OF PREVIEW]

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