Prison Overcrowding is a Bipartisan Issue

8 min readMar 8, 2021

It is undeniable that the United States has an issue with its prison and criminal justice systems. The idea of the U.S. being the world disciplinary leader is by now a firmly established fact, at least when it comes to its own people. Currently there are 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S., which makes the United States the world leader in prison populations having the highest number of incarcerated people per capita. These numbers show no sign of slowing down. The statistics reveal a shocking trend that shows an overall 500% percent increase in prison populations in the past 40 years. (Mauer, 2016) With limited construction of new prison infrastructures and minuscule funding for expansion, this sharp increase is a hazardous threat for current inmates. This paper will examine the issue of prison overcrowding and various methods of reform proposed to resolve these issues, including privatized prisons, sentencing policies, and reformation focused programs. In order to achieve this, significant legislation will be analyzed to determine how they plan to implement these policies and the way in which they are interpreted by those who enforce them. After the contents of these pieces of legislation are examined, the effects of the solutions they propose will then be discussed in how they impact prison populations and recidivism rates.

One of the most significant historical landmarks of the U.S. criminal justice system is the Clinton Administration’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. For the purposes of this paper, this piece of legislation will function as the starting point of modern criminal justice policy. This policy consisted of $30 billion in total, dedicating a majority of these funds to punitive measures rather than rehabilitative ones, such as providing $9 billion for the construction of new prisons, $8 billion for the hiring of thousands of new police officers, and $3 billion for increased border control and the incarceration of illegal immigrants. (Mauer, 2016) These expansions however were still unable to keep up with the rapidly rising numbers of people being incarcerated. In fact, this bill only continued to raise incarceration numbers dramatically with its new additions to strict sentencing policy. It reinforced the use of mandatory minimums and introduced three-strike mandatory offenses. This meaning that after three or more convictions for serious violent felonies or drug traffic crimes, offenders will automatically receive mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Most significant however, is this policy’s stance on drug offenses and its unforgiving continuation of the notorious War on Drugs era of United States history. It is important to recognize that the crime bill’s punishment focused model of handling drug offenses was nothing new. The act simply continued and escalated the strict drug policies that were already implemented by previous administrations, such as Nixon, Carter and Reagan who all paved the way for the creation of increasingly severe punishments by setting their policy agendas to focus on this issue that they knew already had public support. With a majority of the American public becoming increasingly conservative following the 1960s and 1970s, these administrations saw their opportunity to also make their positions increasingly more conservative to secure their popularity and the votes of their audience.

These tactics were indeed more harsh on crime and they did put more convicted criminals in prison, however they did little in their efforts to expand prison infrastructures to match the rapidly rising population numbers. These punishment focused policies led to extreme, dangerous overcrowding of federal and state prisons and jails. The legislation’s $9 billion dedicated to the expansion and building of new prisons was clearly not enough to support the boom in incarcerated populations as it exceeded what could be sustainable in prison infrastructures. This extreme overcrowding of government-run facilities led to the boom of the private prison industry.

Overrun state and federal institutions demanded an immediate solution to alleviate the dangerous consequences of overcrowding. The solution to reduce crowding in prisons became, quite predictably, focused primarily on building more prisons. The sharp increase in demand for prison facilities and space to hold the thousands of new convicted offenders opened the door for the possibilities of privatized prisons. Many of these up and coming prisons received government contracts to support their startup and growth. Privatized prisons, run by individual private companies or corporations, are run like a business. They function as for-profit organizations, meaning the more prisoners they bring in, the more money they make. (Guetzkow & Schoon, 2015) The private prison company is not the only one to profit either. Since they are large corporations, they often have stockholders and investors and not to mention additional individual companies to support their day to day functions such as food and hygiene services. All of these invested businesses benefit from increasing populations, therefore they have no reason to support rehabilitative measures over the continuation of harsh sentencing policies that perpetuate and grow inmate numbers.

Unsurprisingly, there have even been cases of private prison companies influencing sentencing practices of judges to ensure that their population numbers remain high. For example, the “Kids for Cash” scandal in Pennsylvania documented a groups of judges who received a cut of the profits of a private juvenile detention center, estimated to be around $2.2 million each, for sentencing upwards of 2,000 minors to serve time in the prison. This is an obvious and significant problem when the greed and demands of private prison companies are used to influence the decisions of prosecutors and judges. The judicial and court systems are not the only ones influenced by private prison’s money, however. These corporations are notorious for giving large campaign donations. They have and continue to contribute millions to individual presidential campaigns, including former president Donald Trump. With monetary benefits to high-ranking and lawmaking individuals like these, private prisons see no need to reduce the amount of incarcerated people and thus have proven themselves to be an ineffective solution to the issue they were intended to resolve, prison overpopulation (Fulcher, 2012).

In order to reduce the amount of people being sent to these institutions a reasonable starting point for reform may be the way in which people are sentenced. Mandatory minimums and three-strike sentences, such as those created by and supported under the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, predetermine the outcome of cases and take away the power of the judge and the defendant. They do not allow for cases to be heard as individuals and they ignore any extenuating factors from being considered. However, proportional sentencing takes into account the severity of the crime as well as the individual circumstances (Nishi, 2019). Using this approach to sentencing would reduce the amount of mechanical sentencing processes that ignore and dehumanize the individual in the case. Additionally, the removal of three strike mandatory sentences would reduce the amount of life sentences given and thus would reduce the overcrowding of prisons by increasing prison exit rates.

Equally important to the reformation of sentencing types is to reduce or reform incentives received by prosecutors for achieving particular sentences, specifically non- violent drug offenses. If the incentives were directed towards shorter sentences, parole, or therapy and rehabilitation focused programs, they would potentially be more likely to opt for these sentences which in turn would reduce the amount of people incarcerated for these offenses.

A recent piece of legislation that has been implemented in an attempt to reform these issues, interestingly endorsed by both Donald Trump as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, is the First Step Act which was introduced in 2018. This bill gives mandatory minimum exceptions for non-violent drug offenders who have no prior criminal background, and it would expand to include people with limited criminal histories in its future application. It would also reduce the severity of several minimum sentences, however it would not apply retroactively meaning those who have already been sentenced under mandatory minimum policies would not receive any reductions to their sentences. Despite this fact, this bill still has the potential to reduce the overall amount of time incoming inmates might have to serve in the future. The bill also reduces sentencing on non-violent drug offenses, specifically focusing on reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine. This adjustment to sentencing policies works to ensure that those who were disproportionally sentenced for crack offenses would be eligible for a reduction in sentencing or even for release. This is a historically significant change in policy as the original disparity between crack and powdered cocaine mandatory minimum sentences tended to be racially biased as minorities historically were targeted to receive longer sentences for lower class drug offenses. All of these initiatives were substantial yet despite the progress they make, this act is still truly a “first step” towards reform.

The best type of policy for prison reform, at least as far as this paper is concerned, is attitudes and initiatives focused on the rehabilitation of offenders. Focusing money, time, and attention on inmate reformation to help people recover from, exit, and stay out of the prison system makes the most sense from both a logical and humanitarian position. This type of policy focus would help to keep prison population numbers at a sustainable level since they would prevent a majority of inmates from being held in facilities for life or excessively long periods of time. These programs should include and be centered on treatment, counseling, educational classes, and incentives for inmates who participate and complete them. To begin, treatment programs to assist those with drug addictions and mental illnesses would allow them to receive medical care and treatment which would thus prevent them from being caught in the prison cycle. This approach to drug abuse is far more considerate of the source of drug addictions than the current solution of locking all users up could ever be.

Additionally, counseling and therapy programs such as outreach and support groups that would help inmates to build individual help networks would better help individuals to improve their behavior with outside support. This would thus reduce the chance of recidivism as individuals will be better equipped to handle potentially compromising situations. Also, increasing funding for in-prison educational programs would help inmates better prepare to recover, reestablish themselves and do well once they are released. Being able to be productive by earning GED’s, degrees, and vocational skills while serving time in prison would increase the likelihood of individuals to be able to get jobs once outside. A steady source of income would increase their quality of life and thus would prevent a substantial percentage of individuals from reoffending. In conjunction with these programs, incentives should be implemented within prisons to reward inmates for participating and completing these programs to increase and support participation.

Overall, it is undeniably clear that significant amount of reform is needed to improve the conditions of the U.S. prison system. The policy and attitude of the punishment focused, “tough on crime” model of the criminal justice system clearly is not working to reduce crime as it does nothing to alter the behaviors of potential criminals which means a majority percentage will continue to reoffend and reenter the prison system. In the long run, this is an ineffective and inefficient policy that is unsustainable given the cost of mass incarceration (Pitts, Griffin & Johnson, 2014). This is not an issue isolated to individual states but it rather one that exists on a federal level so it requires federal level change. The way in which criminal justice is perceived in the United States reflects an underlying attitude of what the public sees as just. The philosophy tends to be that those who break the law are deserving of severe punishment. This policy and attitude about the criminal justice system clearly is not working to reduce crime by changing the behaviors of potential criminals but by throwing convicted criminals into cells and, essentially, throwing away the key.