Why Prison Population is Increasing in the United States

The United States prison population has been increasing over the past 40 years. According to (Phelps, 2016) the United States witnessed a change in its criminal justice policy that has witnessed what the author terms as mass incarceration.  The decision has had profound effects on the prison populations in the country, resulting in more people being sent to state and federal prisons. That in 1981 the United States federal prison population stood at just less than 24,000 prisoners, is hard to believe given the current number which stands at millions.

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According to (Fairweather & McConville, 2013) the United States prison population has been on the rise since 1981, leading to an increase in overcrowding rates. By 2006, the number of prisoners in the federal prisons had reached over 2.3 million, with the current number as of 2016 standing at an estimated 6,613,500 (Kaeble, Glaze, Tsoutis & Minton, 2016). This tremendous growth in the number of people under prison supervision has been affected by factors such as truth in sentencing, determinate sentencing, states abolishing parole, and sentencing guidelines. The paper will focus on how these four factors have affected the prison population growth rate in the United States.

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Truth-in-Sentencing

            The prison population in the United States is considered one of the highest among the developed countries in the world. In the last 40 years, the country has been regarded as having been in what (Spohn, 2014) referred to as unprecedented” imprisonment binge”. However, the author asserts that in reality, the increase in the prison population in the country’s federal prisons is not directly linked with the crime rates. As a matter of fact, one would expect that increasing prison population is as a result of increased incarceration due to increased crime rates. Rather, Spohn points that the crimes rates in the United States have been on a steady decline since 1991 (pp. 535-36). Instead the increase in the number of prisoners has been attributed the sentencing policy changes and practices that the favored use of imprisonment.

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            The favor for the use of imprisonment has not only led to an increase in the number of prisoners in the United States prisons and the increase in the in the prisoner admission rates, but has also led to an increase in the time served for violent crimes through punitive laws (Spohn, 2014). The adoption of these criminal justice punitive policy changes are attributed to such laws as the Truth-in-Sentencing statutes, the mandatory minimum sentences, the life sentence without possibility of parole (LOWP), the three-strikes sentencing provisions, and the sentencing guidelines that are punitive in nature.

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            Initially, many prisoners were released to serve their prison terms under the discretionary paroles. This is reflected in the number of released offenders and the length of time they served in prison cells. According to (Li & Long, 2017) the highest number of prisoners released under discretionary parole reached a record high in 1977, but started to decline as new sentencing policies took effect. This was completely abolished in 1984 through the United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Consequently, the release of prisoners on grounds of good behavior became limited and the states moved towards the determinate sentencing and the mandatory supervised release.

In order to ensure an increase in the mean serving time among federal offenders, the federal government enacted the Violent Offender Incarceration and the Truth-in-Sentencing Incentive Formula Grant. The Truth-in-Sentencing program has played a huge role in the implementation of the increase in the time the prisoners spend in jail by funding the expansion or creation of new correctional facilities within the states that confines the offenders convicted of violent crimes. In addition, it warrants that states should ensure such felons spend at least 85% of their sentence terms in prison. In effect, the Congressional act allowed increased mean time spend by prisoners in jails, through funding of the incarceration services. As a result, the prisoners who were initially released early based on their risk to recidivism and behavior change are now forced to spend considerable time in prison, thus increasing dramatically the number of prisoners under confinement.

Determinate Sentencing

            The justice and corrections system in the United States has been governed for the better part of the 20th century under the indeterminate sentencing paradigm.  The indeterminate sentencing ensured that judges enjoyed a greater discretion in determining the type of sentence and their length (Neal & Rick, 2016). This included discretion on the decision on whether to send an offender on probation or to a jail term and the type of sentence for the offenders who entered the prison. It also gave the parole boards and judges the discretion to make decisions on rehabilitation based on the offender behavior, improvements, and the impact that they would have on the public safety when they delivered their punishments. However, the paradigm came under scrutiny and attacks in the 1970s, especially regarding the possibility of racial prejudice while giving sanctions. This led to the adoption of the determinate sentencing, which constrained the initial freedom enjoyed by the judges.

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            The determinate sentencing did not only curtail the discretion that was initially enjoyed by the judges but also introduced more punitive sentencing policies. According to (Neal & Rick, 2016) sentencing policies influences the incarceration rates through a number of ways. The authors point that it exerts influence on whether offenders should enter prison cell and the length of stay in prison. The discretionary release is not present in this paradigm, allowing the judges to offer fixed sentence lengths. This move towards a more punitive sentencing framework has been fund to be among the major drivers of the increase in the prison populations (pp. 4). Initially judges could exercise discretion under the indeterminate paradigm; however the introduction of fixed sentence terms that is proportionate with the offence and paroles means the offenders that could have been released now have to be given prison sentences that are proportionate with their offences.

States Abolishing Parole

            The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) is considered one of the landmark legislations in the United States criminal justice system. The legislation has been so influential that it has defined the modern criminal justice system. According to (Berman, 2017), the SRA legislation created the U.S Sentencing Commission which eventually created the U.S Sentencing Guidelines that shaped the modern criminal justice system. However, what is of considerable concern is that the Sentencing Reform Act abolished parole. The elimination of parole by states through the SRA has been shown to have exacerbated the criminal justice system problem of increasing prison population.

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            Unlike probation which is an alternative to incarceration, parole often involves release of the prisoners after serving the prison terms on promise of abiding with the laws. Though both involve offender supervision, parole seeks to release prisoners who have reformed rather than having them complete their prison sentence without release.  According to (Petersilia & Threatt, 2017) release on parole provided many benefits including enhancing good behavior among the prisoners and as a critical “back end” to prison overcrowding. The elimination of indeterminate sentencing and the parole review by the states meant the use of fixed minimum sentence terms. Prisoners have to serve their sentence terms in full without parole, unlike before where based on behavior change and assessment of risk of recidivism prisoners would be released early. However, the abolition of parole means prisoners have to complete their sentence terms, which is a recipe for prison overcrowding and growth in prison population.

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Sentencing Guidelines

            The greatest change that have occurred over the past two decades in the American sentencing is the move from the indeterminate sentencing towards the presumptive range of sentences that the judges must adhere to when sentencing offenders. For example during the pre-guidelines sentencing the courts released high number of offenders believed to have participated in crimes such as tax evasion, insider trading, theft, and antitrust offenses among others (Hinojosa, 2008).  However, the introduction of sentencing guidelines ensured long, determinate prison terms were introduced for such offenders. The author asserts that the commission wrote guidelines that classified many of the previous offenses as serious.      

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In addition, Berman (2017), points that the commission doggedly intricate guidelines limited judicial discretion, in order to pursue uniformity and consistency. The introduction of sentencing guidelines meant that prisoners who could initially be released on parole and probation terms, were now required to serve determinate prison sentences. Moreover, the abolition of parole further complicated the problem. It now meant that offenders had to serve specific prison terms and were no longer going to enjoy parole terms, thus increasing significantly the prison populations which had reduced thanks to probation and parole.

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