Arguably the most pressing issue facing the field of corrections today is the problem of prison overcrowding. Overcrowding negatively impacts nearly every aspect of running a corrections facility, and even exacerbates problems when inmates are eventually released (Specter, 2010). Overcrowded prisons increase the likelihood of violence against both inmates and corrections officers, and there is evidence tying overcrowding to higher rates of suicide and homicide (Davies, 2004, & Camp, Gaes, Langan, & Saylor, 2003). The problem has only gotten worse over the last few decades, and there is no evidence that policymakers or administrators have plans to do anything soon (Giertz & Nardulli, 1985, & Taggart, 1996). After examining the relevant literature concerning the history, scope, and reasons behind prison overcrowding, it becomes clear that the solution to overcrowding and its attendant costs must come in the form of administrative/institutional reform coupled with a serious reconsideration of the current legal and prison system, particularly in relation to the suitable treatment of non-violent offenders.
While overcrowding has likely afflicted prisons throughout history, the issue did not become a crisis until the 1980s, when a series of new laws, including many related to drug offenses, dramatically expanded the number of criminals in the population, and subsequently increased the likelihood any someone might be arrested and incarcerated (Giertz & Nardulli, 1985, p. 71, Specter, 2010, p. 194). although the current crisis of overpopulation facing institutions today is in many ways the lagging effect of changes made thirty years ago, the increased threat of prison overpopulation was acknowledged even just a few years after these legislative reforms (Giertz & Nardulli, 1985). According the United States' Department of Justice, 58% of state prisons were already overcrowded by 1979, so the changes in the 1980s turned an already-major problem into a legitimate crisis (which has only gotten worse over the course of subsequent decades) (Giertz & Nardulli, 1985, p. 74). For better or worse, throughout the 1980s the United States led an international charge against the consumption of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and crack, and as a result the number of incarcerated individuals increased substantially over the subsequent thirty years (Giertz & Nardulli, 1985, p. 73-74).
However, this is not to suggest that current prison overcrowding is solely the result of drug laws, but rather to acknowledge that contemporary overcrowding has its genesis in these laws, because what began as a response to drug use became the standard response to criminal justice in general. The trend towards harsher drug penalties in the early 1980s encouraged a more general movement towards longer, frequently mandatory sentences (Giertz & Nardulli, 1985, p. 72). The mandatory nature of many of these sentences exacerbated preexisting administrative issues related to overcrowding by reducing the flexibility of law enforcement and the criminal justice system when determining issues of incarceration and sentencing. This problem was and is especially severe in state institutions, because while local governments and judges are responsible for most prosecution and sentencing, the prisons themselves are run by the state (with federal assistance), creating conflicting incentives for the different stakeholders (Giertz & Nardulli, 1985, p. 72). Thus, while local jurisdictions are required to enforce sentencing laws and benefit from the capture and incarceration of criminals, state governments are the ones left to manage the actual incarceration, thus bearing the brunt of costs (Giertz & Nardulli, 1985, p. 72).
These differing incentives also help to explain one of the major discrepancies between federal and state prisons, because although both systems suffer from overcrowding, overcrowding in state prisons is much more dramatic, and state prisons are consistently rated lower in terms of inmate and officer safety (Specter, 2010, p. 194). Of course, the degree of overcrowding and a lack of safety go hand in hand, because overcrowding increases the likelihood of violence and disease, especially since overcrowding connotes a lack of adequate resources (Camp et. al., 2003, p. 529, Davies, 2004, p. 378, Specter, 2010, p. 194). This danger of increased violence affects not only inmates, who are more likely to attack each other when kept in overcrowded conditions, but also corrections officers themselves, because overcrowded prisons increase the ratio of inmates to guards to the point that it may be difficult for officers to adequately protect themselves (Specter, 2010, p. 194-195).
To see how overcrowding negatively affects the prison system, one may examine a few dramatic examples from the California prison system, which is the largest in the United States and the third largest in the world as a whole, incarcerating roughly 155, 500 individuals (Specter, 2010, p. 194). A 2010 analysis of overcrowding in California prisons based on a combination of state-mandated reports and individual investigations found a number of cases in which overcrowding resulted in serious danger and even death; for example, "in one instance, a dormitory was so crowded that prison staff did not learn about a prisoner's death for hours, much less provide emergency care" (Specter, 2010, p. 195). Overcrowding has become such an issue in California that "the corrections department has largely managed to provide each prisoner with a bed by triple-bunking prisoners in gymnasiums and dayrooms" rather than actual cells, a set-up that only increases the likelihood of conflict and disease transmission (Specter, 2010, p. 195).
Solving the problem has proved extremely difficult, because although most stakeholders agree as to the degree of the issue, coming up with a simple solution is almost impossible due to the complex reasons behind overcrowding. As discussed above, the current overcrowding crisis is the result of conflicting incentives and a disconnect between sentencing and parole laws and actual incarceration capacity. While building more prisons is the most obvious solution, this takes time and money, two things that there are never enough of. Time is fairly scarce, as overcrowding has been a crisis for at least three decades and is only getting worse, and money is arguably in even shorter supply, as the recent economic downturn has only further decreased state and federal coffers. As a result, unilateral attempts at prison reform in specific institutions have met with varying, and frequently little, success, because institutions simply do not have the time or money to conduct the kind of dramatic changes that are needed.
At the same time, the courts have attempted to intervene in order to force the issue, but these efforts have not the results activists and judges have frequently desired. For example, while "government officials have either been required by court order or consent decree to embark on a course of institutional reform design to ensure the provisions of correctional services to meeting some judicially prescribed minimum standards of incarceration," these court orders have had fairly little influence (Taggart, 1996, p. 926-927). This is mainly due to the aforementioned issues of time and funding, because even when states or counties are ordered by a court to reduce overcrowding, it remains difficult to enforce these orders practically, because in many cases states and counties are simply ill-equipped to comply (Taggart, 1996, p. 927). Furthermore, court orders are not ideal tools with which to confront the issue, because judges are generally reluctant to institute what are essentially legislative commands; for example, in California, two different rulings acknowledged the need to reduce overcrowding, but refused to issue population limits or other specific policy changes out of a desire to maintain the division between the judicial and legislative branches (Specter, 2010, p. 195-196).
This leads one to the inevitable conclusion that the solution to overcrowding ultimately lies with state and federal legislatures, because they the only organizations with both the authority and the means to confront the underlying causes of overcrowding. The evidence from the 1980s and onwards suggests that a reform of current drug laws could go a long way towards reducing overcrowding, as these laws have had an outsized influence incarceration rates, and the majority of those incarcerated under current drug law are non-violent offenders. The drug laws of the 1980s were instituted in the wake of a very real drug crisis, centered most visibly around the rise of crack cocaine in inner cities, but in retrospect it could be argued that these laws have done more harm than good by vastly increasing the prison population while doing little to stem the consumption of illegal drugs. While it is beyond the scope of this study to suggest specific policy changes in regards to specific offenses without a more robust account of the available research, there are certain widely accepted facts that point towards drug law reform as the best means of reducing prison overcrowding. Changing public opinion regarding drug use as well as the demonstrated success of education and prevention programs leads one to the conclusion that softening certain sentencing requirements for drug offenses would likely be the easiest in a line of reforms to reduce overcrowding in prisons, because the potential harm resulting from more lax drug laws pales in comparison to the very real harms created by overcrowding.
While administrative and institutional changes are also needed…