“The United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, yet we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. We incarcerate more of our own people than any other industrialized nation on the planet and spend approximately $80 billion each year to do so. In fact, when opportunity costs to offenders, victims, and the government are accounted for, the real cost of the American criminal justice system is closer to $1 trillion.” - Pat Nolan, Director of Nolan Center for Justice
As of 2014, the Bureau of Prisons was 128% overcapacity. That same year, the state of Illinois housed 48,300 inmates in a facility designed to hold 28,200. By 2015 eighteen state prison facilities were considered overcrowded in the same way. This not only makes living conditions worse among prisoners, but also wastes funding on the lockup of people who need other forms of treatment.
As far as living conditions go, overcrowding among prison facilities has triggered some inhumane practices. For example, in California when prisons were at their most overcrowded, one facility developed a sleeping system among inmates. Each inmate shared a bed with a certain number of people and each had a specific time that they could be in it for eight hours at a time. These people got sleep, but some got it during the day, and some at night. None of them got it during a quiet period of time due to the other prisoners who were awake and enjoying their ‘day time’ while others were attempting to enter a period of rest. This also completely rid the inmates of any sort of steady routine, as well as prevented many others from ever seeing the sunlight. Overcrowding forces inmates to have to live in conditions that are inhumane, breaking the eighth amendment- and prevents proper rehabilitation from taking place.
In order to save money, and get a better return on investment, prisons should save their beds and space for violent offenders. The majority of inmates in most facilities are nonviolent offenders, meaning that most facilities could easily halt their overcrowding issue by simply making nonviolent offenders more easily eligible for parole, probation, and rehabilitation programs. The mixing of nonviolent and violent offenders can also have detrimental effects on the inmates. Violent offenders can influence nonviolent offenders, causing a higher risk for recidivism. They also cause fights more often than nonviolent offenders-and can cause nonviolent offenders to get involved by provoking them. This can result in an elimination of privileges, as well as a longer stay. Separating these groups of people not only provides a better form of rehabilitation, but also potentially reduces the risk of recidivism, and saves money by paying for fewer prison stays. By doing this, the nonviolent offenders will receive treatment that will actually help them, a better means for their reentry into society (limiting the risk of recidivism), and society will in turn be safer.
- Only incarcerate violent offenders
- Send nonviolent drug offenders to rehabilitation or halfway houses
- Sentence nonviolent drug offenders to community-based alternative forms of punishment (e.g. rehabilitative pretrial programs)
- Implement validated risk needs assessments to help determine if a defendant is eligible for a community-based alternative to incarceration