Repair Through Refining: Systems to End Prison Overcrowding
To view the problem of prison overcrowding as a distinct or separate issue within the criminal justice system is to ignore its vast effect. Overcrowding in prisons is by no means an ancillary difficulty among many because its existence undermines every intent of the system itself. It promotes criminality within the prisons by placing impossible burdens on the security staffs; it weakens or eliminates any chances of rehabilitation for the same reason, and it ultimately serves no purpose to society save the incarceration factor alone. Moreover, as overcrowded prison generate criminality, it may be argued that even this “benefit” is misleading, as those prisoners released most likely form a greater threat to the public. This being the reality, prison overcrowding solutions must be given top priority, and this may only be accomplished through consistent efforts and systems which address individual experience and potential. Such efforts are imposing, certainly, and will require something of a restructuring of the existing penal system. Nonetheless, only through the comprehensive avenue of sentencing based only on the need to incarcerate, and with parole and probation practices greatly enhanced, can society hope to return the prison system to a viable state.
In a very real sense, and with the immense problem of prison overcrowding to be addressed, it is necessary that society must reexamine its attitudes – and consequently laws – in regard to certain criminal activities. This applies most prominently to what are termed “victimless” crimes, with drug use usually considered an enormous example of this identity. That society is offended by drug use may be understandable, but it is far more important to reevaluate this ethical or moral stance in terms of actual criminality. In simple terms, a great deal of illegal drug traffic is based on consensual transactions between willing partners. While the exact nature of certain drugs as especially harmful must be considered, there is also the striking reality that judicial efforts to curtail illegal drug usage costs the United States billions of dollars annually, crowds the prisons, and is largely ineffective in ending the perceived criminality. More to the point, it is highly likely that legalizing certain drugs would actually go to lessening the usage itself; legal drugs would be subject to taxation and other regulations, which would place controls on quantity (Brux, 2010, p. 49). Two other benefits of great significance would be achieved. Legalizing forms of drug traffic would inherently obviate organized crime involvement, thus finding solutions to prison overcrowding in two ways, while saving vast expense in investigation and adjudication. Then, the crimes typically associated with the obtaining of illegal drugs, such as theft and prostitution, would be lessened. Added to these advantages, and not incidentally, is that the society better reflects national ideals regarding personal responsibility and rights.
It is clear that narcotics use is anathema to most citizens, and that legalization of it would deeply offend many sensibilities. What the society must apprehend, nonetheless, is the actual definition of the victimless crime, as well as the consequences to the society when criminalization is attached to activities in which all participants seek to engage. The concern here must be on crimes that definitely demands incarceration if the evils of prison overcrowding are to be properly addressed, and this concerns another practice generally reviled: prostitution. As with drugs, this victimless crime accounts for immeasurable space in limited prisons: “Arrests for consensual sex between prostitutes and willing customers constitute half the total arrests in many major cities” (Hardaway, 2003, p. 5). That the majority of such arrests translates to minimal prison time is not the point; it is that law enforcement resources are vastly diverted to deal with “crime” that injures no one. In point of fact, legalizing prostitution would, as with drug use, reduce more overt forms of crime associated with it. That is to say, legalization of prostitution would end the organized crime factions conducting it, and consequently, eviscerate abuses experienced by prostitutes.
Legalizing most drug use and, to a lesser extent, prostitution would ease prison overcrowding significantly. More, however, is needed, and it is proposed that the savings and income generated by the legalization of recreational drugs and prostitution go to developing and maintaining the frameworks required to eliminate overcrowding, serve society’s interests, and offer redemption to those criminals capable of reform: an effective and refined parole system. Not unexpectedly, such an approach has been employed in European nations, and with success. The processes are more complex than those practiced in the U.S.: incarceration in a cell is the first stage, the duration of which determined by the gravity of the offense; the prisoner is then permitted to work outside of the prison under constant surveillance; a regime allowing further liberty follows; and actual parole is the final phase (Council of Europe, 2000, p. 79). As may be obvious, this process calls for stages not present in American parole systems, or certainly not consistently maintained and regulated. Parole in the U.S. is, in fact, increasingly controversial, chiefly because recidivism runs so high. Every year, more than two-thirds of all prisoners released back into society are arrested again within three years (Neubauer, Fradella, 2010, p. 380). In plain terms, the U.S. parole system is randomized, subject to state interpretations and policies, and generally self-defeating. More to the point, this failure exacerbates a problem it is meant to address, that of prison overcrowding. While developing and maintaining a complex system of easing the prisoner into society, in such cases where there is the reason to anticipate success, will require great effort and expense, it is the only reasonable means of refining and improving the penal system, as it must also aid in a truly effective lessening of prison populations.
Prison overcrowding is far more than one issue within the troubling arena of the penal system, simply because it generates greater problems for that system and defies progress of any kind. This acknowledged, the issue demands a form of address as massive as the issue itself. The concept of the victimless crime must be accepted by society as the reality it is, both to affirm basic rights and responsibilities, and to remove from the prisons individuals guilty of causing no harm to another. Then, the actual links between society and the prison must be completely revised, and a viable and safe avenue of eventual release, in the form of stages of supervised freedoms, must be established and maintained. In no uncertain terms, prisons are self-defeating constructs when they are overcrowded, serving the interests of no one save in the tangible separation of offenders and society. This is blatantly unacceptable to any nation seeking to responsibly administer justice, and only through a comprehensive approach of sentencing based only on the need to incarcerate, and with parole and probation practices significantly enhanced, can society hope to return the prison system to a viable state.
Brux, J. M. (2010). Economic Issues and Policy. Belmont: Cengage Learning.
Council of Europe. (2000). Prison Overcrowding and Prison Population Inflation: Recommendation No. R (99) 22, Adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.
Hardaway, R. M. (2003). No Price Too High: Victimless Crimes and the Ninth Amendment. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Neubauer, D. W., & Fradella, H. F. (2010). America’s Courts and the Criminal Justice System. Belmont: Cengage Learning.