The American criminal justice system can be divided into three components: law enforcement, the courts, and corrections. Each has its own unique problems and challenges that it must face in order to accomplish its combined goal of ensuring safety and justice throughout society. But one problem that all must face is the problem of overcrowding. With nearly 300 million people in the United States, there actual number of people who enter the criminal justice system is staggering. The police are overworked and underpaid, the courts run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and prisons are so overpopulated that courts are forced to order the early release of thousands of prisoners each year. While overcrowding is a problem in all three aspects of the justice system, this essay will examine the problem of overcrowding within the prison system.
The United States of American has one of the largest prison populations in the world. There are currently more than 2 million people incarcerated in prisons across the U.S. With so many people in prison, the system is overcrowded; but overcrowding then leads to other more serious problems. The reason for overcrowding; the insistence on prison time for minor offenders, and the disproportional incarceration rates of minorities, are all problems which originate from outside the system. Ultimately, while it is overcrowding which gives rise to the problems inside prisons; it is outside society where the problem can be fixed.
Gangs, or Security Threat Groups (STG's) are a major problem in prisons today, with some prisons reporting 35-40% of the total population gang members. (Newhouse, 2009, p. 31+) Gangs are usually divided by race, bringing racial issues into the fray, but also are responsible for illegal drug trafficking and the violence which stems from that trade. (Arthur, 2009, p. 8) Since overcrowding is a major issue at most U.S. prisons, many join gangs simply for protection from the more predatory elements found in prisons. One way to deal with this problem is to identify, track, and isolate gang members from rival gang members. (Newhouse, 2009, p. 31+) This has been found to be an effective measure, however, this requires enough space and personnel to accomplish this goal; in other words less overcrowding and more money.
Substance abuse is another serious problem within the prison population. Some statistics indicate that up to 50% of the population currently incarcerated in U.S. prisons are addicted to drugs or alcohol. (Lyons, 2010, p. 26+) While violence stems from the trafficking in such substances, the real problem is that substance abusers in prison will be substance abusers outside of prison. This will lead to criminal activity and an increase in recidivism, or being sent back to prison to serve another sentence for another crime. A two prong attack may be the most effective way to tackle this problem. Firstly, officials will want to identify substance abusers when they first arrive in prison and get them into treatment as soon as possible. (Lyons, 2010, p. 26+) This will require greater resources be allocated on substance abuse treatment programs. Secondly, they must deal with the problem that exists inside the prisons. This requires prison officers to not only to stop the illicit trade on drugs, but also to identify substance abusers inside the prison system and get them treatment, as well as getting them into prison-based support groups to fight off the temptation to begin using again.
But the root of the problems lies in overcrowding; there are just too many people in prison, and too many of them are repeat offenders. Of the more than 2 million prisoners in American prisons, more than 50% of that number have recidivated. Overcrowding puts too much responsibility on the staff of prisons and they simply cannot do a proper job. Gang activity, substance abuse, prisoner on prisoner violence, all increase as the population increases, but the resources spent on prisons never keeps pace with this increase. Health facilities are understaffed and without proper supplies, therefore prisoners do not get adequate health care. In short, overcrowding is the cause of most problems in prison.
But why are American prisons overcrowded? The simple answer is that Americans demand all criminals, even those guilty of non-violent crimes, be incarcerated. As part of the "get tough on crime" attitude, Americans demand that criminals must be punished. However, statistics have revealed that in relation to their percentage of the population, there are a disproportionate number of underprivileged and minorities in prison. In other words, poor people and minorities are more likely to get sent to prison than the wealthy or whites for the same crime. (Wacquant, 2010, p. 73+) (Hashimoto, 2011, p. 31+) America has also been fighting a war on drugs for decades and using mandatory sentencing for drug crimes as their main legal weapon. The result has been thousands of people in prisons for drug-related offenses who should be in treatment instead. In order to deal with these problems there must be a shift of resources in society away from incarceration, and toward prevention and treatment. (Currie, 1998)
It is also important that young people have a decent future to look forward to, and not be trapped in a dead-end life of poverty and misery. America needs better schools, which better prepare the young for a career. Programs that keep teens off the streets and focused on accomplishing goals such as job training, career development, and other programs, need to be put into practice. Since drugs are a major source of crime, treatment centers must be made more accessible to those who need them. There has to be greater outreach to the community to get substance abusers to recognize their problems and seek treatment. America needs to completely change the way it deals with the issue of substance abuse.
When substance abuse becomes a matter for the legal system a new approach is necessary to avoid the problems that currently plague the system. One of the major sources of overcrowding is the insistence on mandatory incarceration for those convicted of drug offenses, therefore, there must be change in the legal system's perceptions about drugs and drug abusers. These people do not need to be subjected to a long and miserable prison sentence, which only makes their drug problems greater, they need real help getting off the drugs or alcohol. This is really the only effective solution to the growing economic, social, and criminal problems brought about by substance abuse.
In terms of recidivism, prisons must have effective ways to identify and treat substance abusers, since this is a major source of repeat crimes. But prisons also have to prepare the inmates for life in the outside world. Prisoners have to be taught job skills, but also must have real chances to get jobs. Inmates need better schooling and training programs, but they also may have mental health issues which must be dealt with. Anger management classes, gang counseling, and other such programs can keep ex-cons from getting involved in criminal activity once they leave prison.
Most of all America must face the problem with race. It has been demonstrated that minorities make up a disproportionate number of prison inmates. (Alexander, 2011) And most prison gangs are based on race, or protection from other races, which often leads to conflict between gangs and thus conflicts between races. The problems American society faces with race outside of prison is multiplied in the enclosed environment of a prison. Many blame economic conditions of minorities, and the lack of opportunities for poor minorities, as the causes of this statistic. In order to deal with this problem, America must not turn away from the issues of race, economics, and prison populations. There is a direct link and it must be dealt with through a greater focus on increasing the opportunities for minorities in society. Schools in minority areas must be made better, programs to teach minority teens job skills, mentoring programs to teach young people how to face the uncertainties of life, and other such programs must be made accessible to those who need it. Because the racial problems within prisons stem from racial tensions on the outside, America's societal racial issues must be dealt with if there is to be any advance in better prison effectiveness. And Americans must come to grips with the fact that there is a greater percentage of minorities and poor in prisons because this nation still has a fundamental problem with race: minorities and poor are treated differently than the rich and white. Unless America learns to deal with these issues, the prison system will continue to be overcrowded with a disproportionate number of minorities and substance abusers, and generating even greater problems of race, gangs, drugs, violence, and recidivism.
If there is one problem which is endemic to all parts of the criminal justice system it must be the problem of too many criminals in a system that is overloaded. There are not enough resources spent on the current…