Prison Crowding Debate Coming to a Head



Reform Ideas Bringing Together Members of Both Parties

America’s prison population has never been higher or more costly to taxpayers than in the last few years. In fact, with over 2 million prisoners nationwide, there are more citizens behind bars per capita in America than in any other nation in the world. Driven by strict drug sentencing and mandatory-minimum policies, among other factors, the U.S. prison population has more than tripled since 1980 and is saddling federal and state agencies with huge expenses, overcrowding, and dangerous scenarios in prisons.

That has political leaders from across the aisle working to craft ideas for reining in runaway costs of high imprisonment. Texas Governor Rick Perry made headlines in the Economist for publicly agreeing with Obama Attorney General Eric Holder that too many Americans are going to prison, and for too long, without sufficient results.

In this area, Perry can brag to the nation that his state of Texas has already begun making policy changes to curb overcrowding. Over the last decade, the Texas legislature has been easing laws so that small drug offenses no longer require prison time, and funding has been increased for outside rehabilitation programs to help non-violent drug offenders.

In New York, also, low-level drug offenses have been adjusted in statute to reduce the prison population.

America’s worst state example of overcrowding is in California. The Golden State’s jailed population has gotten so out of hand that the governor attempted to release 10,000 inmates early to relieve pressure building inside the state’s prisons. He was overruled by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that will keep several constitutional issues alive for the foreseeable future. The state made matters especially bad in the mid-1990s when it instated its famous “three strikes” policies that carry mandatory prison time for three offenses, including for petty crimes that typically would not require jail time. This law has been more loosely enforced in that state recently as the prisons exceed capacity. Since 2006, California has reduced its prison population slightly, but mostly through a strategy called “realignment” in which offenders are sent to other facilities, like county jails. At one point, California’s prison population exceeded 200 percent of the state prison capacity guidelines.

Prison reform is one of only a few big issues with the ability to unite different perspectives so strongly. States have started taking action for themselves while law-and-order conservative Democrats and Republicans still oppose easing sentencing laws. They argue the strict laws have kept criminals off the streets and saved money in other areas. Yet a major study by Cambridge University found there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to saving law enforcement dollars by locking up more citizens and that the United States has far surpassed that point. Taking low-risk, young adults who might otherwise be productive members of society off the streets and footing the bill for them to live behind bars has cost taxpayers billions in lost economic activity, and that doesn’t always deter people from committing other crimes.

There is no clear feeling among the public on this issue, as prison reform is only in the beginning stages. The policies enacted in the 1980s to fight America’s “War on Drugs” were simply an experiment of which we can now see the results. On one hand, the “war” removed thousands of offenders who could have potentially caused harm to others before they had the chance to do so. On the other, 500,000 current prisoners are serving time for drug offenses, and drug use rates remain high in the United States.

As it is with most issues, Congress is slow to act on prison overcrowding. That’s one reason why Attorney General Holder announced he will enact some policies in the federal system to slow down the growth in prisoner numbers temporarily. The states are serving as the “laboratories of democracy” with this issue, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

For now, Holder announced he plans to advise the release of some elderly inmates nearing the end of their terms and easing current laws that make it difficult for ex-cons to buy homes or get a job. Several Democrats and Republicans have authored legislation in the U.S. Senate to reduce mandatory-minimums and allow judges a “safety valve” to impose lighter sentences for low-risk offenders.