Prison Overcrowding: Empirical Analysis of Term Paper

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This view stresses a sociological approach to crime, suggesting that the behavior of criminals is more easily adapted and changed when law enforcement agents understand the circumstances and immediate environment an offender lives in that may contribute to offensive behaviors, and to one's behavioral characteristics.

Literature Review

The purpose of the preliminary literature presented is to provide an overview of the historical foundations leading to prison overcrowding, an exploration of the populations of people incarcerated and empirical evidence that provides an explanation for overcrowding. By examining this evidence the researcher will find support for the hypothesis presented, develop appropriate research questions and present insight into the significance and importance of the study topic selected for this research. The preliminary research review will include an overview of texts, primary and secondary research articles and studies that explore prison overcrowding, criminal behavior and law enforcement policies and procedures during the last three decades. Much of the research presented focuses on empirical evidenced gathered between the 1980s through the present. The results of this literature review will contribute to the meaning and impact of the primary research study proposed by the author.

History Incarceration and Prison Overcrowding

Alexander (1998) provides some history about incarceration leading to prison overcrowding. The author notes that since the early 1980s criminologists have debated multiple theories about incarceration rates. According to Alexander (1998) one body of thought suggesting society held stable rates of crime whereas the other school of though suggested that specific societies held stable levels of imprisonment. The latter of these according to the author is supported by the relatively stable prison rates up until the early 1970s; however some time after this a boom in incarcerations occurred within the United States and Canada, a boom that has failed to cease (Alexander, 1998). The U.S. incarceration rate has been climbing for the last three decades with "approximately 450 sentence prisoners for every 100,000 citizens" (p. 25). Alexander (1998) argues that the increase in incarceration rates is not explained by crime rates, because though homicide rates are higher than rates in other countries the actual convictions for homicides account for "an insignificant number of sentenced prisoners" (p. 25). This suggests more and more prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. In recent years researchers concede that "movements up and down in the incarceration rate do not correlate with crime rate changes" invalidating arguments that higher crime is resulting in increased incarceration and prison overcrowding (Alexander, 1998, p. 25).

What has changed according to Alexander (1998) are incarceration policies that dictate who should be locked up and for how long. In recent years more than an 84% increase in prison admissions at the State and Federal levels have occurred "among non-violent offenders" (Alexander, p. 25). Many of these are drug offenders, with the United States incarcerating more for drug offenses than for all other offenses (Alexander, 1998).

After the 1970s policies about sentencing also changed, allowing more discretionary authority among judicial authorities, which has contributed to an increase in sentencing lengths according to many (Alexander, 1998). This suggests a mindset that the solution to crime is "to lock enough criminal up" over time (Alexander, p. 25).

Who's In Prison

To understand prison overcrowding one must first understand who is being punished. Marciniak (2002) notes that the largest single group of criminals incarcerated in local jails include those being punished for possession, use or sales of drugs including crack cocaine, marijuana and heroin, with the majority incarcerated for using these drugs not selling them (p. 10). This suggests the campaign in the United States against drugs is failing. The U.S. Department of Justice suggests seven out of every ten inmates is a drug user, rather than a violent offender, yet as Marciniak (2002) notes, nonviolent drug users "are treated as criminals when they should be patients" (p. 10).

Throughout the nation, the number of women incarcerates has also doubled in the last decade, also for offenses related predominately to drug use and abuse (Marciniak, 2002). Marciniak (2002) also cites statistics from the U.S. department of justice suggesting roughly 80% of female incarcerates were mothers with children at the time of incarceration, with many parenting very young children, further suggesting the need for more rehabilitation rather than retribution (Marciniak, 2002).

Still other studies suggest many mentally ill patients including those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are also incarcerated rather than placed in hospitals where they may receive the care they need, in part due to shortages of living quarters for those with mental illnesses (Marciniak, 2002).
According to this research one may assume that prison overcrowding isn't the result of incarcerations for increasingly violent criminals. In fact, little support suggests crime is on the rise resulting in prison overcrowding. Rather, results of the studies including those of Marciniak (20020 suggest more and more tougher sentencing is leading to longer term prison sentences for non-violent or petty offenses and those with mental illnesses. This perhaps suggests more need for rehabilitation and reexamination of incarceration rules, regulations and policies. More reasons for prison overcrowding are discussed in the next section.

Reasons for Overcrowding

Marciniak (2002) notes that many states have done away with parole boards, causing more prisoners to stay in jail for longer periods of time. Clearly this will only contribute to even more prison overcrowding as more and more offenders are forced to serve out there terms. This patterns results from the belief that greater retribution may result in decreased offenses, however historically there is little evidence to back this sentiment or belief (Marciniak, 2002; Marvell, 1995). Rehabilitation in these cases or in cases of non-violent offenders is often underemphasized. While the resources available for rehabilitation efforts may be limited it does make more sense to focus on alternative forms of corrections including rehabilitation if prison overcrowding and the problems associated with it are to be overcome. Further, Marciniak (2002) suggests actions including more treatment centers for nonviolent drug abusers can help reduce incarceration rates by as much as half; the author also suggests creating more health care centers so the mentally ill aren't incarcerated when they should be treated instead (Marciniak, 2002).

Marvell (1995) conducts a study exploring the relationship between sentencing guidelines and prison overcrowding. The study suggests that legislators should consider "guidelines for incarceration" based on the prison's capacity (p. 696). The author suggests guidelines laws may help reduce prison population growth moderately. Marvell (1995) also notes several trends in the criminal justice system in the last few decades including its emphasis on retribution or imprisonment for crimes rather than rehabilitation. Legislators according to the author have responded to fears and increases in crime by extending sentences or in many cases, imposing mandatory minimum sentences for various crimes including non-violent crimes (Marvell, 1995). Such actions are responsible for the nearly 400% growth in prison populations over the last twenty five years (Marvell, 1995).

In theory sentencing guidelines should be established related to the severity of the crime combined with the criminal history of the incumbent (Marvell, 1995). A trial judge has the liberty to impose minimum sentencing or sentencing within a range deemed appropriate for the crime committed (Marvell, 1995). Many states do not consider prison capacity when creating sentencing guidelines, thus there is a greater likelihood that prisons will become overcrowded.

Landreville (1994) affirms the population in "carceral" establishments "has increased considerably in the past twenty years" not only in the United States but also within Canada (p. 40). The author notes that it is vital legislators review appropriate correctional alternatives that may help reduce the costs associated with imprisonment and alternatives to the "treatment of criminality" (Landreville, p. 40). Many groups however still recommend what Landreville (1995) refers to as a "penal policy of bifurcation" where the most severe offenders are sentenced for the longest periods of time, and other measures including community measures may be adopted for "first or occasional offenders" (Landreville, p. 40). The author argues that "decarceration" of occasional or first time offenders "would provide space in the prisons for those who would be imprisoned for a longer period of time" (p. 40).

Others argue for community sanctions as a means to deter crime and replace incarceration in some cases (Landreville, 1995). It is important to note some authors (McMahon, 1992) suggest that reductions in sentences or more short-term sentences for certain offenders are often perceived by members of the public to "make a minimal impression on prisoner counts" (p. 103) suggesting more in depth exploration in this area is necessary. Landreville (1995) counters this argument suggesting reduction in admissions for non-violent offenders including those who failed to pay fines did result in a "significant impact" on the number of prisoner's incarcerated (p. 40). Landreville (1995) further argues "it is more by shortening the duration of the stay in prison than restricting the number of.....

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