Fit To Burst

Prison overcrowding and the efforts to reform

Cera Sylar

Cera Sylar

Right now, America is experiencing its lowest crime rates in twenty years. The rate of homicide, for example, is nearly half of what it was in 1991. However, the number of individuals incarcerated in American jails and prisons right now is higher than any other country in the world. It’s eight times higher than in 1970, meaning nearly 1 out of every 100 adults in America is currently incarcerated. As television host and political satirist John Oliver puts it: “The only other thing that’s grown at that rate since the ‘70s is varieties of Cheerios!”

Although there has been a boom in the number of prisons in recent years, it is not enough to keep up with the growing number of occupants. Veronica Horowitz, a PhD student studying the American system of punishment here are the University of Minnesota, weighs in on the cause of this influx of inmates.

“For the past 4 decades, we have been sending people to prison at higher and higher rates for longer periods of time, and more people,” Horowitz said. This seems odd, considering the relatively low crime rates. Horowitz goes on to explain: “We’ve passed laws so that more people get sent to prison for things they wouldn’t have been sent to prison for in the past, and people stay in prison longer,” she said.

These sentencing laws include laws involving mandatory minimums, which are established minimum sentences for specific crimes; three strike laws, which often result in life sentences for felons with previous felony convictions; and expansion of life without parole among others. Instigation for these laws comes from several sources. One of the biggest drivers was the war on drugs in America, partnered with the tough-on-crime movement that began with the Nixon administration and continued through Clinton. Though these efforts cannot be deemed successful, the policies they invoked are still in effect today, and are significant contributors to the high incarceration numbers.

“We’ve passed laws so that more people get sent to prison for things they wouldn’t have been sent to prison for in the past, and people stay in prison longer,” she said.

Due to the excessive inmate content of American prisons, a number of reforms are currently being enacted to improve living conditions and sentencing. One reform that has garnered a lot of attention is the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). The purpose, as stated in the Act, is to “provide for the analysis of the incidence and effects of prison rape…and to provide information, resources, recommendations, and funding to protect individuals from prison rape.” Although PREA was passed with unanimous support from Congress, there are many critics who question the efficacy of the act.

“It’s my impression that although the bill was passed with good intentions, it hasn’t had as much impact in action,” Horowitz said. The problem lies in the lack of efforts made to enforce the implementation of reforms within the prisons as a result of the data collected, according to Horowitz. Prison rape continues to be a huge problem in the prison systems, with an estimated 4 percent of inmates reporting having experienced sexual assault during their sentence.

To address the issue of overcrowding in prisons, the government has introduced several federal sentencing reforms such as the Drugs Minus Two amendment, which allows those incarcerated for drug offenses to have their sentences reexamined. The process of determining a sentence works on a point system, and the subtraction of two points can significantly decrease the length of a sentence.

Prison rape continues to be a huge problem in the prison systems, with an estimated 4 percent of inmates reporting having experienced sexual assault during their sentence.

Another act that is currently being examined but has yet to pass is the Smarter Sentencing Act. If passed, this act would cut mandatory minimums for a variety of crimes in half, helping to deal with the overcrowding in jails and prisons. However, it is important to note that only 10 percent of those incarcerated are in federal prisons. Some reforms are being made at state level as well, such as California’s elimination of the three strike law.

One of the biggest contributors to the overcrowding of the jail and prison systems is the incarceration of criminals for minor offenses, such as drug offenses and prostitution. Currently, there is a lot of debate centered on the worth of imprisoning individuals for crimes such as these. A number of people, like Horowitz, believe that these people should not even be criminally charged.

“I think that many things that are currently minor offenses should not be criminalized in the first place. In particular, victimless crimes,” Horowitz said. Despite the relatively low severity of these crimes, the aid for minor offenders post-incarceration is almost non-existent. Whereas for violent prisoners there are interventions such as halfway houses, there is not much that is made available for those who committed drug crimes and prostitution.

Unfortunately for these criminals, their record makes it extremely difficult to get jobs or even entrance into higher-level education systems. As progress continues to be made to eliminate the overpopulation of prisons, more efforts need to be directed to programs for the rehabilitation of former inmates back into society.