Nonsensical Sentencing: The US Prison Overcrowding Crisis - NJ7 Citizens for Change

Nonsensical Sentencing: The US Prison Overcrowding Crisis

by Tina Tarighian

The 1960s were the beginning of a period of mass incarceration for the United States. When citizens felt unsafe in their neighborhoods, they propelled legislators to draft bills that made their system tougher and their streets safer. What they didn’t account for, however, was that clinging to the orthodoxy that more incarceration always means less crime would be the exact reason that the United States now harbors the population of some countries behind bars and leads the world in inmate count. Until we have some real reform, this legacy can never be ameliorated.

Impacts of Overcrowding

Incarceration rates have increased in the last four decades by over 500% [1] . The numbers speak for themselves, but those being crowded into prisons can’t. With more than 2.2 million Americans currently in a United States prison or jail [1], it’s a mystery how overcrowding still has little public awareness- especially when the impacts are so toxic.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office on the Bureau of Prisons exposed how inmate overcrowding has jeopardized the safety of the prisons themselves. Bureau of Prison (BOP) officials found that the “increased use of double and triple bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, limited meaningful work opportunities, and increased inmate-to-staff ratios” [2] directly correlates to increased cases of prisoner disorderly conduct. The consequences of such cases are horrific and cannot be overlooked. On June 20, 2008, correctional officer Jose Rivera was stabbed repeatedly by two convicts with a handmade knife [3]. He was only 22 years old and had been serving as a correctional officer for less than a year. If there had been more staff members to manage the overwhelming amount of prisoners, or to observe the inmates and to scan their items more routinely, there would have been a more responsive team to attend to Officer Rivera's aid as soon as the incident occurred. The two convicts that murdered the officer were put on trial and received life sentences. So not only do our officers suffer, but the problem becomes cyclic. As the prison population increases, more crime occurs within our facilities, and more people will be in jail for longer periods of time.

Unfortunately, Officer Rivera’s case does not strike the BOP as surprising. According to the last known available records, there have been around 1,700 assaults on the BOP staff in the 2010 fiscal year [2]. Congress has taken to these actions by passing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, an act that stipulates less harsh convictions of powdered and crack cocaine offenses [2]. However, since Congress did not allow for the legislation to be applied retroactively, there are now countless numbers of offenders still serving sentences deemed unfair by today’s standards. Until we start passing legislation that not only applies to future offenders on trial but also those who have already been convicted, our prisons will continue to overflow.

Impacts of Reducing Prison Population

Besides the prison population growing rapidly, the corrections budget is also burgeoning. In 2015, Arizona’s governor made headlines after announcing he cut $384 million in state programs and $75 million in funding from Arizona's public universities, but granted millions of dollars for a new, 3,000-bed private prison [4] to deal with the influx of prisoners. However, if Arizona’s governor wanted to effectively manage the inmate count, he would have actually put more money into the educational budget. In fact, so would the whole nation. After examining the link between higher incarceration rates and low levels of educational attainment from state to state, the Alliance for Excellent Education discovered that the nation could “save as much as $18.5 billion in annual crime costs if the high school male graduation rate increased by only 5 percentage points” [5]. When prison overcrowding puts a strain on states’ budgets, their first course of action is similar to that of Arizona’s governor: to cut money from education to afford improving their correctional system. In this scenario, our children suffer, but so do our future state budgets because without education, the crime rates skyrocket, further exacerbating the overcrowding crisis. Reducing our prison population would allow for relieved state budgets and more opportunities for the future generations.

Although our nation has been steadily increasing its prison population, New Jersey and New York are some of a few states that have gone against the grain. Both states have been decarcerating their prisoners by 26% from 1999-2012 while the nationwide state prison population increased by 10% [1]. During their periods of reduction, violent crime rates per 100,000 residents fell by around 30% [1]. They also experienced a 29%-31%[1] decrease in property crime rates. Of course, these rates cannot be completely attributed to just reducing sentences. Rather, they are a result of enforcing new policies at the state level in conjunction with switching to more community monitoring. This practice has also shown to decrease recidivism rates. In Kentucky, after offenders serve their time, which is already considerably less than it used to be, they also must complete the state’s new Mandatory Reentry Supervision program. The National Institute of Corrections analyzed their plan and found this program has saved Kentucky approximately $29 million and reduced recidivism rates by 30% in less than 2 years. The only way our entire nation can reap the benefits that New Jersey, New York, and Kentucky have already been graced with is to transition to their correctional actions.

How Drug Policy and Private Prisons contribute to Overcrowding

The BOP reported over 50% of inmates currently in federal prison are there for drug offenses[8]. When compared to just the 16 percent in 1970[1], it becomes apparent that our prison population is being driven largely out of the rising tide of drug users and the plethora of anti-drug policies. These include mandatory minimum sentencing, “three strike” laws, and the private prison system. With some reform to these laws and systems, our prison population will significantly diminish.

By 1983, 49 states had put the Mandatory Minimum Statute into place and soon after, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which established 5-10 year sentencing for drug importation and distribution[9]. Two years later, President Reagan signed the Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act that grants the federal government “authority to penalize all conspirators in drug-related crimes regardless of their role” [10]. Legislation like this prevents our judicial system from considering all the aspects of these offenses and continually removes cases from under their jurisdiction.

“Three strike” laws that specifically punish minor, nonviolent crimes are especially heinous. And while most states in America have not passed them, it does not mean the consequences of such laws are nonexistent. In 2012, nearly 4,000 prisoners in California were serving life sentences for offenses that were “neither serious nor violent” [11]. That’s enough convicts to fill the average state prison by more than 30%. If we abolish “three strike” laws for nonviolent crimes, we would be able tailor each specific offense to a specific (and more reasonable) penalty.

In 2011 when Alabama’s overcrowding epidemic was exponentially getting worse, the state turned to privatize their prisons, and they were not alone. The American Civil Liberties Union claims that “the number of prisoners in private prisons increased by approximately 1600% between 1990 and 2009”[12]. Lamentably, this did not serve as a solution and actually inflamed the problem states attempted to solve  by further corrupting the system. Simply, for private prisons to have a continual flow of profits they also need a continual flow of inmates. To fulfill this, the big companies that own the private prisons, such as the Corrections Corporation of America, lobby Congress to pass legislation that is “tougher on crime” [13] and has longer sentencing. By privatizing our prisons, we treat our inmates like profit, not like people.

A lot has changed since we wore afros, rocked bell-bottom disco pants, and did the twist. Unfortunately, some things that have remained the same include our prison policies. Until legislators and constituents realize that we aren’t living in the 60s anymore, we will never see progress in righting our past wrongs.  

Works Cited
[1] "Criminal Justice Facts." The Sentencing Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
[2] Davidson, Joe. "Prison Crowding Undermines Safety, Report Says." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
[3] "Federal Bureau of Prisons." BOP: Jose V. Rivera, Fallen Hero. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
[4] Brodey, Sam. "Arizona Gov: We Have No Money for Public Education, but Let's Fund This Private Prison." Mother Jones. Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress, 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
[5] "Crime Rates Linked To Educational Attainment, 2013 Alliance Report Finds." Alliance For Excellent Education Crime Rates Linked To Educational Attainment 2013 Alliance Report Finds Comments. N.p., 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
[6] Daniels, Deborah, and Ken Cuccinelli, II. "Less Incarceration Could Mean Less Crime." Indianapolis Star. N.p., 23 June 2014. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
[7] "Kentucky Mandatory Reentry Supervision." Pew Charitable Trusts. Public Safety Performance Project, 4 June 2014. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
[8] "Federal Bureau of Prisons." BOP Statistics: Inmate Offenses. Federal Bureau of Prisons, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
[9] "Report to Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System." Federal Sentencing Reporter 24.3 (2012): 185-92. USSC. Web.
[10] Petrella, Christopher. "Ten Ways To Reduce The Prison Population In America." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 06 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
[11] Specter, Donald. "California's Prison Crowding Reduction Plans and Credit Laws." Prison Law Office (n.d.): n. pag. Prison Law. 16 Mar. 2016. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
[12] "Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration." American Civil Liberties Union. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
[13] Miller, Jessica. "Privatization of Prisons Is No Solution for Overcrowding." Mic. N.p., 16 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.


Tina Tarighian is a student at Millburn High School in NJ.

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