a bird and a bottle

The Solution to Prison Overcrowding? Why, That’s Easy. It’s implementation that’s hard.
May 7, 2007, 2:39 pm
Filed under: 2008, civil rights, criminal justice, law, news, politics

(image: prison crowding in a California state prison)

Prisons around the U.S. are full to bursting these days. California has most notoriously battled the problem of the prison bulge. But the problem is not limited to CA. With more people incarcerated than ever before in the U.S. — almost 3 million, about 491 people per 100,000 — more and more states are likely to face prison crowding crises in the coming years.

Today comes word (via Sentencing Law & Policy Blog) that Nevada’s prison system is buckling under ever more crowded conditions. From the Nevada Appeal:

The inmates at Nevada’s Warm Springs Correctional were still adjusting to their cramped quarters and new cellmates when Gov. Jim Gibbons toured their cell block.

After walking down a hallway between 12-by-12-foot cells now holding four prisoners each, he urged state lawmakers to vote for bigger prisons.

“It doesn’t take much more than that to force the system into a meltdown,” Gibbons warned of the crowded conditions, and lobbied for lawmakers to pass his $300 million budget request for prison expansion.

The causes of the near-meltdown of Nevada’s prison system — as well as those in Connecticut, Texas, Kansas, and Nevada — are clear, while the benefits remain doubtful at best:

The federal government was offering extra grant money to states that used such “truth in sentencing” laws, and by 1996 most states had one.

Sentences for violent offenders around the country nearly doubled, hitting an average of 88 months, according to one U.S. Department of Justice study.

Ten years later, the costs of tougher sentences continue to mount, while the benefits have remained elusive. State legislatures have a case of “spending fatigue” when it comes to prisons, says Michael Thompson, director of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments in New York.

“Why aren’t we doing any better in terms of recidivism rates?” Thompson asked. “We’re spending that much more money, and the same number of people are going back to prison. We should be getting better outcomes.”

So what can we do? Well, getting rid of mandatory minimums is a good first step. Reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine sentences, a process that has already begun but that could be stalled by Congress, is another important move. Of course, fixing this problem long term requires longer term policy changes. We’ve got to stop treating addiction like a crime. We’ve got to lower recidivism rates by providing real job training and education to people who are incarcerated and by providing support and job assistance when they are released.

Basically, we’ve got to make it politically unpopular to be a “law and order” candidate in any traditional sense of the phrase.


12 Comments so far
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One possible approach is to start in libertarian areas, like the Western US, and push through programs that legalize some drugs or at least reduce sentences for possession. Doing it in non-coastal states, like Arizona and Colorado, also permits playing a states’ rights angle in order to prevent Congress from cracking down on the program before it has the chance to prove itself.

Comment by Alon Levy

That’s a good point, Alon. I think the problem is, though, that the libertarian states often elect governors and legislators who wouldn’t necessarily go along with this (since traditionally libertarians have voted Republican). Perhaps if the Bush type of Republican (big govt spending) continues to have power, libertarians will abandon ship.

Comment by bean

That’s definitely a problem. But lately Democrats have been making inroads with voters in the interior west. They aren’t necessarily libertarians, though they likely were Republicans before because they were pissed about environmental regulations. If the Democrats can portray Giuliani as an anti-libertarian with a bad record on civil liberties they might take enough libertarian voters away to be able to tow a drug decriminalization bill to it… but they probably can’t.

Comment by Alon Levy

Good comments. But, it’s not only drug sentences. It is also much longer sentences for violent crimes and sex crimes, three strikes laws, longer mandatory minimums and determinate sentences for all crimes, and more restrictive parole policies. In other words — a much harsher, more punitive criminal justice system.

Having said that, in New York, with the reduction in crime over the past decade, the prison population has also decreased from the Pataki highs (which were nearly three times the Cuomo highs). As a result, Gov. Spitzer has wisely proposed closing some prisons, but has not surprisingly, met with resistance from upstate conservative lawmakers who value the prison economics in their districts. Now Spitzer has created a bi-partisan sentencing reform commission to study ways to make sentences more rational in NY with a goal towards making rehabilitation and treatment more available as alternatives to incarceration. We shall see how successful this approach turns out to be.

Comment by ricky vermont

Unfit, overcrowded prisons? We’ve got a long history behind us…

In their report to the governor for the year 1900, the commissioners of the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet declared: “we feel that we can present the matter no more forcibly than to quote from our last biennial report and say that: ‘[…one] is compelled to ask what excuse the great State of Illinois can offer for compelling the management of this penitentiary to so deal with men who are required by law to serve sentences here[,] that they must eat, rest and sleep in quarters so contracted, so repellant, and so utterly unfit for the purpose, that [the] very existence [of the prison cells] is a disgrace to the State that permits it.’” Some three decades later, the 1937 Report to the Governor of Illinois pronounced: “It is recommended that the Joliet branch of the penitentiary be abolished. Its age, limited facilities for housing, [and] lack of sanitary accommodations warrant the state in abandoning this unit….Every prison commission in the last thirty years has condemned this branch as being unfit to incarcerate inmates.” Joliet prison finally closed its doors in 2002 – nearly one hundred years after being declared unfit to house prisoners.

Comment by professorplum

At which point it became the setting to the hit prison show, Oz…

Comment by professorplum

Are you saying, plum, that this is a problem as old as the hills?

And Ricky, it seems to me that another important step to reducing incarceration rates and crowding would be to improve the economies of the places in which prisons are usually located. Communities like prisons because they create jobs and generate income (not to mention representation). But if there are other jobs available, perhaps there would be less pressure to build and maintain more prisons…

Comment by bean

If prisons are located in such a way that most state legislative districts lose out from including them for apportionment purposes, then it’s possible to exclude them. It’s easily going to survive a court challenge on the grounds that inmates can’t vote. In principle it’d be even better to also exclude other non-voters, like non-citizens and people under 18, but that risks pissing off too many state legislators who’d otherwise vote for exclusion.

About economics I don’t know… are the areas where prisons are located usually blighted?

Comment by Alon Levy

But if we were to get rid of mandatory minimums, couldn’t we wind up with a situation where certain judges would be handing out rulings and sentences based on personal predjudices? Obviously, we could have the same thing going on with the current system, but it seems like the damage would be lessened with mandatory minimums.

Comment by Mari

Mari – it’s a good point. Inconsistency is definitely a risk of indeterminate sentencing (and of getting rid of mandatory minimums). And I’m not necessarily saying that mandatory minimums for ALL crimes are a bad idea. But I do think they are a bad idea for simple drug crimes — which shouldn’t be crimes at all, in my book. Truth is, in a system as into incarceration as the U.S., there’s no idael solution. But I don’t think that mandatory minimums for drug crimes further any goal other than those of the prison industrial complex.

Comment by bean

This might be naive of me, but I think a spotlight needs to be shown on the economic effects of this tough-on-crime b.s. on the struggling classes. People who get kneecapped by some crazy sentence and lose their job, their family loses the house, the kid gets placed with the state – stuff like that. The crazy loss of productivity, cost to innocent family members, and cost to the taxpayer because someone had more than 25 pot plants in a greenhouse. You can do this without messing with people’s idea of “safety”, which is what made all this tough-on-crime stuff happen to begin with.

Comment by Phoebe Love

The key phrase here is “Tough on the causes of crime.” Blair suffixed that to the usual “Tough on crime” message to appeal to moderate voters in Britain, and although Britain’s incarceration rate has risen, its rise in percentage terms has been smaller than the USA’s. Only yesterday I saw a new Gallup poll that had the majority of American respondents say improving social conditions is a better way to fight crime than increasing law enforcement.

Comment by Alon Levy

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