Administrative Alternatives to Address Overcrowding in State Penitentiaries

Over the past century, overcrowding in jails and prisons across the United States has emerged as a noteworthy social phenomenon with far-reaching consequences for the State Department for Correctional Services. Although prison overcrowding is partly due to an exponential increase the overall rate of crime, its origins in contemporary American society can be traced back to President Nixon’s highly publicized War on Drugs. Possession of scheduled controlled substance was confronted with stringent punitive measures informed by mandatory minimum sentences. This would later be bolstered by the Three Strike Law which landed many repeat offenders behind bars without the possibility of parole. It is through this rapid cascade of changes in policy that is now linked to the overcrowding witnessed in a majority of state penitentiaries across different jurisdictions and a major emerging challenge for the criminal justice system. The U.S currently incarcerates 2.2 million individuals in its state penitentiaries, which represents a 500% rise compared to numbers recorded prior to the War on Drugs (“Criminal justice facts,” 2019). 

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States such as Colorado have recently sought aid from the federal government in dealing with an uncontrollable influx of prisoners in its prison facilities. Pundits portend a bleak future for correctional facilities in the United States since the prison population is projected to increase two-fold within the next 10 years.  This is further exacerbated by an increase in recidivism among newly released inmates coupled with a string of numerous parole violations. Thus, it is this reality that increases the need for administrative alternatives to address overcrowding in state penitentiaries. This paper will explore possible changes in policy by elucidating overcrowding in state penitentiaries, exploring possible solutions, and highlighting workable solutions.

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Overcrowding in state penitentiaries

            The current population explosion within state penitentiaries represents one of the most severe challenges facing the criminal justice system. This particular challenge affects all within this complex operational framework and is now criticized for impeding the state efforts. Overcrowding within the state penitentiaries can be summarily explained by evaluating the circumstances that have created this current situation.  Minority communities such as African Americans and non- White Hispanic Americans make up 37% and 22% of the entire inmate population in the United States (NAACP, 2018). While these numbers are staggering, they also represent a stark reality in the United States and a society that creates ideal conditions for this type of scenario to exist. Systematic inefficiencies by government agencies to provide social services capable of transforming individual’s financial capability now manifests in unambiguous inequality.  Minority communities are often relegated to the fringes of society; living in debilitating conditions in inner city housing projects with limited amenities. Low levels of education often mean that only menial jobs are available, leaving many to turn to illegal activities to make ends meet. This current state of affairs coincides with increased policing and nascent “stop and search” police powers which considerably contribute to the population explosion in prisons.

State penitentiary administrator’s viewpoints

            Correctional officers within many of the jails and prisons across the United States play a major role within the current charter since they are at the frontline of managing incarcerated individuals. It is they who grapple with the exponential increase in the prison population and the wide range of challenges presented by this state of affairs. In developing a workable alternative to manage this situation, an administrator’s viewpoint and perspective serves a key role in in enabling one to gain a comprehensive understanding of the effect of overcrowding in prisons. Administrators are primarily tasked with major operations within state penitentiaries and, therefore, occupy a unique position that affords them an opportunity to experience the adverse effects of overcrowding. From their unique vantage point, administrators are also able to review the consequences of overcrowding within the penitentiary and beyond its walls. For every individual interned in a state penitentiary, there is a family reeling due to the loss of a significant member of a household. The disproportionate level of African American and non-white Hispanic males in prison has particularly created a chasm within their respective communities (Goodstein & MacKenzie, 2013). Families are typically left contending with shifting roles within the family once the sole breadwinner is incarcerated, with most children growing up without both guardians at homes.  They fail to break the family cycle, and seemingly gravitate towards illegal outfits which are often bound to land them in the same predicament many of their family members are in.

 Furthermore, administrators also acknowledge the quandary facing many ex-felons released after serving lengthy sentences.  Such individuals have a hard time fitting into society and are not readily accepted by their community. With no money, gainful employment, or structure in their lives, prison becomes more of a refuge and a home.  It is common for ex-felons to reoffend with the main objective of returning to prison since it is a better alternative in comparison to homelessness and unemployment. The creation of an appropriate policy to address overcrowding in prisons should, therefore, address the aforementioned issues as areas of concern for the criminal justice system within the United States. Policy changes to curb overcrowding should also be informed by empirical evidence from extensive scholarly research. Jail administrators would then be required to pass this information first to City and County Councils before receiving an appropriate response from the federal government.

Administrative problems

            Overcrowding presents numerous administrative challenges for practitioners within the State Department for Correctional Services. One of the most evident problems associated with overcrowding is inadequate staff members to attend to a burgeoning prison population. Within federal prisons, the ratio of correctional officers to inmates currently stands at 1 to 10 (NAACP, 2018). This serves as a blatant reminder of the current situation within state penitentiaries where correctional officers serve as the primary representation of law enforcement. The high number of inmates within such facilities is disadvantageous since it limits their ability to constantly monitor inmates. This increases the likelihood that illegal activities will prevail within a given facility, endangering the lives of vulnerable segments of the prisoner population.

Additionally, state penitentiaries have been known to experience an acute shortage in qualified staff due to a low retention rate.  The high employee turnover rate experienced within this sector is as a result of specific prevailing attitudes among officers. Work as a corrections officer is generally regarded by many as a stepping stone to prestigious government agencies within the scope of law enforcement. Furthermore, probation officers are currently simultaneously assigned multiple parolees due to a high number of inmates going in and out of prison. An increased case load impedes their ability to comprehensively assess persons on probation to ensure they uphold specified terms. Nevertheless, this problem can be addressed through increased cooperation between probation officers and administrators within correctional facilities for the purpose of coordination.

Prioritizing alternatives

            The overcrowding witnessed in state penitentiaries is a serious challenge for State Department for Correctional Services, hence an urgent need for viable alternatives. Although many of the feasible alternatives identified by criminology scholars may go a long way in transforming the current state of affairs, solution prioritization is still invaluable.  The administration within a given facility, its staff, and adjoining probation officers should liaise regularly to rank possible alternatives in order of importance. For instance, remaining abreast of the goings-on within the facility is essential when endeavoring to develop solutions to the current problem. Information provided by both staff and inmates will eventually be essential in aiding administrators in crafting a robust system capable of capping an increase in the prison population. Furthermore, probation officers will also have to go an extra mile and meet parole to discuss major issues affecting their reentry back to society and areas which should be prioritized for their individual benefit.

 Feasible solutions

            Overcrowding in state penitentiaries is the bane of the State Department for Correctional Services. Administrators know this too well since it is they who are responsible for the welfare of individual inmates and subordinate staff members.  The implementation of possible solutions is meant to drastically reduce the number of inmates held within a state penitentiary at any given time. Additionally, administrators are responsible for correctional officers and other subordinate staff within state penitentiaries which is primarily why solutions to overcrowding should also accommodate their needs. An overall reduction in inmate numbers is viewed as a positive development due to numerous benefits which are bound to be realized. The Vera Institute of Justice puts its current estimates of the average cost of imprisoning an inmate at $31,000 per year (Vera institute, 2015). This represents a substantial amount which is paid using taxpayer’s money with the objective of making certain that each inmate is fed and housed in a secure location where they remain separated from the general public. Reducing the rate of incarceration will enable the administrators to save a substantial amount which would eventually be useful in addressing inmate’s needs and employee reimbursement. The main objective of an administrator should, therefore, be to keep at-risk populations out of prison, improve conditions for parolees, parole officers and correctional staff.  Below are possible solutions which may aid in combating overpopulation in state penitentiaries.

Alternative sentencing

            Over the past decade, the criminal justice system has increasingly opted for alternative sentencing in the case of minor misdemeanors and offences.  This spares a defendant from the damaging effect of a criminal conviction to their life, reputation, livelihood, and freedom (Goldman, 2020). However, it is important to acknowledge that alternative sentencing will still employ punitive action against offenders but devoid of extensive jail time. This type of non-custodial sentencing is vital within the current framework of the criminal justice system since judges impose crime-specific punishment to help in transforming their behavior. Alternative sentencing programs are only open to a select few based on their criminal history and prior convictions.

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A judge may opt to impose a monetary fine for minor offence such as speeding. They may also issue a suspended sentence which is not enforced on the defendant’s criminal history and in the case of first-time offences. Additionally, probation terms may also be provided to defendants as a way of making sure they remain on the straight and narrow or risk prison time. Restitution may involve compensation for the damages caused by a particular infringement. A judge may also order offenders to perform community service such as involvement in environmental cleanup within an intensive supervision program (ISP).

Provision of additional halfway houses

            Halfway houses play a major role in an ex-felon’s life. It is through them that many former inmates successfully manage to get their lives back on track after serving time in prison. Essentially, halfway houses provide food and shelter for individuals who would otherwise be rendered homeless by their current situation. However, this seemingly mundane act is fundamental. Former inmates who are unable to secure gainful employment or accommodation often resort to their old ways to cope in such this particular scenario. Many turn to drug dealing, grand theft auto, home invasion, panhandling, and robberies to get by in a society that has already earmarked them as convicts and with limited opportunities (Easton, 2016). Thus, increasing the number of halfway houses per state is an important step in the grand scheme of things especially since it is bound to play a major role in reducing the overpopulation in prisons. Apart from offering food and shelter, halfway houses also provide a much-needed sense of camaraderie among former inmates who are then equipped with useful tools to cope in their new environment. This ultimately creates transformed individuals who are employable and capable of fitting appropriately into society devoid of legal problems.

Reducing maximum bonds

            The proclivity of circuit court judges to set high maximum bonds is common within many states. This is often the case in sensitive cases where the defendant is regarded as a flight risk or the nature of the offence viewed as grave enough to warrant a high maximum bond to prevent them from going back to their former life as free folk. While the intentions may be noble, the reverberations of this particular approach are evident within major state penitentiaries. Setting high maximum bonds typically traps defendants in the jail system since a large majority of offenders hail from low-income backgrounds and are unable to come up with the specified amount for release (Blackburn et al., 2012, p. 57). As a result, prisons are soon overrun by a large population of individuals remanded in custody pending the determination of their court cases. Alternatively, judges may opt for lower maximum bonds for low-risk first-time offenders who are then granted freedom pending the determination of their court cases. It is important to compassionate and as forgiving as Christ as a biblical perspective on infractions (Ephesians 4:32, NIV).This provision relives population pressure experienced within state penitentiaries as a result of high maximum bonds.

Allowing the release of inmates based on their age

            The criminal justice system is littered by numerous varying cases which are pigeonholed before seeking a conviction. Juveniles who commit crimes within jurisdictions such as California, Nevada, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, New Jersey, and Maine are prosecuted as adults in court (Bosworth, 2017). Many are eventually enmeshed within the criminal justice system and contribute to the overpopulation witnessed in correctional facilities. The elderly also find themselves in a similar predicament. Simple non-violent infractions such as public intoxication and common misdemeanors typical with individuals within this age bracket are often bound to result in incarceration. Nevertheless, releasing individuals within the aforementioned age groups is an administrative policy bound to reduce overpopulation in state penitentiaries. It is also in alignment with the biblical perspective regarding treating each individual with dignity in the face of transgression; “The Lord hears the needy and does not despise his captive people” (Psalm 69:33, NIV).

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Overcrowding within state penitentiaries is a noteworthy contemporary challenge plaguing correctional services in the United States.  This drastic increase in the inmate is primarily linked to anti-drug policies which have resulted in the disproportionate incarceration of offenders from racial minorities. Nonetheless, administrative alternatives are the best option yet and capable of introducing sweeping transformations with the aim of reducing the prison population to a manageable size. In this regard, administrators play a significant role in assessing the dissimilar viewpoints when seeking to develop a workable solution to this debacle. This can only be done appropriately by first assessing administrative problems within this area, before proceeding to address them appropriately through prioritization. During the course of this research, alternative sentencing, clamoring for additional halfway houses, reducing maximum bond, and determining release based on age have emerged as major administrative alternatives bound to reduce overcrowding in state penitentiaries. In applying the aforementioned solutions, administrators must always consider ethical perspectives which benefit the lives of former inmates.  The administrative solutions outlined above are an important part of criminal justice reform. They intend to make certain that offenders fitting consequences for their actions while creating a framework which reduces the prison population to address the overcrowding witnessed in recent years.

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