The Issue of Prison Overcrowding

The issue of prison overcrowding has become the problem of nearly every country. This has prompted the question whether a country has to spend huge amounts of money on prisons while there is alternate sentencing that can be adopted instead. Overcrowding appears to be one of the huge problems troubling the modern prison since its introduction in the 19th century. The problem of overcrowding is perpetuated by the temporary admissions as well as mandatory imprisonment. The Sentencing Commission has done little to correct the issue of mandatory imprisonment. This has seen minor criminals such as drug abusers ending up in jail, thus stressing the prison capacity.

Additional, this issue covers important policies and crime related topics such as the role of imprisonment criminal sentencing and prison budget in the system of criminal sanctions.

Various methods of alternative sentencing are considered as the most possible solution to reduce the massive population in the correctional facility. The solutions are divided into two categories. They can either be initiated by sentencing inmates in another secluded place apart from prison or through shortening of the lengthy jail terms. In other words, shortening the jail terms will increase the rate of releasing prisoners, while detaining inmates in places such as rehabilitation facilities will consequently reduce prison overcrowding. The bottom line of the two options is to reduce the prison population but not at the expense of perpetuating crime.

Debates have heated about the issues. Some of the opponents of incarceration believe that contemporary society does not require prison facilities, while others believe that an alternate sentencing would help to combat prison population. Other angle of the debate focuses on how to solve the prison-overcrowding problem without compromising the toughness of the criminal justice as well as keeping the level of crime rate low. The debates generated many differing opinions, whereby some view that when an individual is sentenced with incarceration, it is perceived sole issue of crime, while others view the same as rite of passage for criminals. In this respect, both the actual incarceration and alternate sentencing provide a form of punishment to crime and the level of toughness of punishment is immaterial. The criminal justice system avails imprisonment as a severe option to punish lawbreakers, although the effectiveness of the penalty is more vital than the severity of the punishment. This justifies the fact that the alternate form of incarceration provides services that achieve the objectives sets for imprisoning criminals. In this respect, there is no need of channeling too much funds to run the prisons while there are other less costly methods of dealing with offenders.

Every country in the world has prisons for keeping the wrongdoers away from other law-abiding citizens. Many policy-makers have taken the option of prison availability for granted as the natural form of punishment and failed to attempt to find an alternative for them. Notably, in many countries, the use of imprisonment as a form of punishment to lawbreakers is relatively new, while other countries perceive it as a conventional method. The millennial generation started embracing alternate sentencing to deal with crime. Additionally, imprisonment has been regarded as counterproductive in term of rehabilitation of the criminals and their reintegration into society. Regardless of their effort to encourage the use of alternate sentencing, the use of imprisonment continues to rise in the USA. The reality is that the increasing number of imprisoned individuals due to mandatory imprisonment leads to a severe overcrowding in prisons. The possible solution is to adopt alternate sentencing such as community service, house arrest, diversion, rehabilitation, and restitution. Consequently, not only has the step taken by the criminal justice system to use of alternative sentencing not helped in reducing the prison population but it has also proved to be effective in boosting recidivism in society. Thus, the question that prompts the research determines to know whether the use of alternative sentencing to reduce prison population will achieve recidivism and prove be effective in the long term. The paper covers a section of literature review, methodology, findings, and discussion.

Literature Review

Crime prevention and the control of crime have always been a major goal for law enforcement and they have led to a critical maintaining of order around this sphere with apparently perpetual disorder. Historically, criminal sanctions were meant to serve the following main purposes such as offender rehabilitation, restraining offenders to protect the public from them, punishing the offenders, and daunting the criminals and other persons like them. One of the most common methods of prison control used in the USA was the traditional incarceration method that was used in the early 1970’s and continued until the late 2005, whereby the prisons’ populations were increased to 62,8% by the federal authorities (Jones). Mass imprisonment theory worked on the basis, whereby the crime rate in the streets was reduced by locking up a higher amount of criminals in the prisons; however, many factors contributed to the increased crime rates in the streets besides the locked up criminals.

For someone to be imprisoned, it costs very much. Moreover, it is not just a temporary cost since an inmate’s release can have societal cost and a profound impact to the inmate, but the most indispensable measurable cost is the cost of imprisoning a crime offender (Brigham & Houston). According to a statistical research conducted on the increase in the cost of spending by state correction, the USA had spent roughly 280 million dollars in 1980, and this amount increased by 400% in 2000 (Pointon). Similarly, this rise in the spending cost was attributed to the incredible increase in the incarceration rates. Despite the use of traditional incarceration methods in the crime rate reduction, the rate of recidivism has not been effective in justifying the excessive cost sustained by the state (Howard).

Treatment programs free of violence and education have been scraped of the prisons, which resulted in situations, whereby the inmates were forced to spend several years, months, or even days idling and frustrated. In the end of their jail term, they left the correction facility often worse than when they had arrived and then returned to their respective neighborhoods with very little support from the federal sate correction department. As seen in the iconic custodial movie The Shawshank Redemption, the warden tells the protagonist Andy Dufresne that there exist only three ways, in which prisons can be used in the hard earned taxpayers expenditure – more guards, more bars, and more walls, which has been an attitude prevailing among the lawmakers. These lawmakers were less concerned about rehabilitation but they were rather concentrated on punishment (Jones).

The activists who argue in favor or against the institutionalization theory oppose the idea of imprisonment since the prison environment increases the chances of an inmate to engage in crime upon release through prison sociology (Howard). Other activists have seen that the loss of rehabilitative capability and institutionalization are the major causes of incarceration incapability, which has forced many nonviolent inmates to make negative decisions as well as cohabitate with violent criminals (Howard).

If the incarceration and traditional sentencing methods do not work, other alternative sanctions or sentencing will help the criminal justice system in getting a way of obtaining the desired outcome at a reduced cost. A variety of alternative sentencing measures exists, including probation, restorative justice, and deferred disposition, although they may vary with the state. For instance, in the Maine state, the cost of incarceration of offenders is seen as a massive burden and a consumer of their budgetary allocation as felt by many other states. Therefore, for this reason, these states have developed an alternative sentencing such as a court for mental health that helps in the reduction of the jail long-term and prison cost as well as rates of recidivism (Neubauer & Fradella).
Similarly, Alternative to Incarceration Program (AIP) was created in 1987 by the Connecticut organization. This is as an alternative sentencing program sponsored by the state, involved the engagement of the community in the restoration of justice while cutting down the cost of imprisonment. The AIP program emerged advantageous over the other alternatives since it reduced the correction cost by 80% and saved the state money at the time when there was scarcity in the state funding (Pointon). Research conducted by Justice Policy Institute indicated that lower crime rates were recorded in states that spent extra cash on education than those states spending less (NeSmith). The government operations should focus mostly on increasing the education expenditure and spend less on incarceration, which will boost the effective fight against recidivism (NeSmith). Having seen no clear advantages that differentiate the effectiveness of traditional incarceration from the alternative sentencing, the cheaper preference method should be adopted, which is the alternative sentencing method.

Deferred disposition is also one of the commonly alternative sentencing methods adopted, where by the offender is given a second chance if they have committed a less serious wrongdoing. Under the deferred disposition, a program that is completed by the offender is offered to show that they can reform into the right path after pleading guilty of the offence committed. This relief program allows the offenders with no crime records or the offenders with minor crimes to detach themselves from the hostile encounter with the law enforcement system without putting a permanent mark into their records. Because of these programs, the inmates who complete them will get a reduction in their charges or even their charges dropped as well as attaining professional prospects that will help them in life. In the situations when the program is not completed, the offender is recalled back by the justice system, and the prosecutor will be forced to request the judge to give the offender a tougher sentence (Rowland).
Alternative sentencing is mainly aimed at the offenders who do not pose any threat to society or endanger the safety of the public. Therefore, the risk of the offenders in society needs to be evaluated by the justice system to see their eligibility to alternative sentencing. Good moral charter has been used as an explored avenue by many programs such as alternative sentencing programs and parole boards to determine the sentence conditions and length. Good moral character can be seen as a consistent behavioral pattern that exists within the current community ethical standard, shows the absence of morally disgraceful conduct as well as the absence of dishonesty, and conforms the ethical standards of a profession such as medicine and law (Joyce).


The researchers used the quantitave method of collecting data, particularly an interview. The interview entailed a face-to-face conversation that targeted the General Counsel from the United States Sentencing Committee, a Corrections Officer from the correction component of the criminal justice system, a Correctional Program officer from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, one inmate, and one ex-inmate. The General Counsel from the Sentencing Committee responded to the question about the amendment accented and the amendment in plan that contemplated alternate methods of incarceration. In addition, the General Council also answered about the issue of sentencing practice, the prosecution objective, and the sentencing guidelines in relation to incarceration. The interview of the Correction Officer from the criminal justice system seeks to learn about the procedure followed when supervising offenders while in jail as well as while in the probation parole. Moreover, the correction officer provided information about the release process of inmates and changes on the offenders’ status.

The interview of the correctional program officer from the Federal Bureau of Prisons helps to provide information about the prison population statistics across the country as well as the measures adopted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to reduce prison population and the alternate methods of prison incarceration both in plan and implemented. The interview of the prisoners focuses mostly on the personal question to determine the life of prisoners in a populated environment and whether the process of imprisonment meets the intended objectives or not. The interview conducted with an ex-inmate aimed to learn on whether the inmates ended up attaining rehabilitation after serving the jail terms in comparison to alternate sentencing (Neubauer & Fradella).

Another method of data collection is the use of both primary and secondary data sources to collect information. Primary sources of data include going through the pre-sentencing reports and reports of the crimes kept by the criminal justice system. Other reports include prison population reports kept by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The secondary material includes textbooks and peer reviewed online material about prison population, alternate sentencing, and the level of recidivism within the United States.


The findings from the interview have revealed that the criminal justice system has implemented several alternate methods of incarceration as a strategy to combat the American prison population. It has taken a step to amend the Prison litigation Reform Act, (PLRA), that has been existing since 1996 after being enacted by Congress (Joyce). The new reform has managed to block meritorious suits and allow access to court to hear the persecution on the cases of rape, religious restriction, and assault. The PLRA amendment has provided preliminary screening on cases to meet the legislation purpose. Additionally, the interview revealed that the criminal justice system had proposed the following methods of alternate incarceration. The first method is the specialized programs, which is a correction treatment designed for serious and violent offenders where they receive a comprehensive clinical and psychological treatment as a form of rehabilitation. Second is the community service program. This program subjects petty offenders to work on free community services such environmental cleaning and the construction of playgrounds for children. Finally, it is the use of pretrial service that offers probation to the criminals who have been detained and who are unable to post bail (Jones).

From the information gathered from the sentencing committee, one was able to learn that the mandatory incarceration act has been repealed to reduce unnecessary imprisonment of petty offenders. The interview conducted with the inmate confirms that the prison is highly populated and it offers a bad environment for efficient rehabilitation. Moreover, the interview conducted with the ex-prisoner has revealed that prison has little to correct the inmates as they come back to society vengeful, especially if they have been imprisons as the result of mandatory incarceration (Howard).

The report from the Federal Bureau of Prisons provided some vital statistics about the prison population before and after the adoption of alternate sentencing (Neubauer & Fradella). According to the report, two third of the prisoners in the US prisons are sentenced for violent crimes with history of violence (Neubauer & Fradella). This accounted for only 13% of all inmates in federal prisons (Warren). On the other hand, nearly three quarters of the federal inmate population were sentenced for non-violent offences with no history of violence. In the composition of the Federal prison population, 55% are imprisoned for drug offences and 13% for non-violence offenses (Pointon). Concerning the level of recidivism, the report form the Bureau of Justice and statistics indicates that 30,000 of 100,000 inmates released from prison as at 2005 exhibit recidivism (Neubauer & Fradella). Whereas, in the recent report, 150,000 of 200,000 offenders released from prison and other form alternate incarceration exhibit recidivism as of 2013 (Pointon). As a result, prison population has also decreased by 25% (Pointon).


Based on the findings, the JDS has played a significant role in repealing the mandatory incarceration and amending the Prison litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The amendment of PLRA has allowed defender based advocacy on non-violent offenders. The repealing of the mandatory incarceration has helped in reducing the jailing of drug offenders and instead taking them to rehabs. As indicated in the findings, 55% of the Federal prison population is the drug offenders (Tonry). This has a caused a heated debate on racial discrimination in the criminal justice system as many of the drug offenders are blacks. The mandatory incarceration has been interpreted as a harsh law to punish black lawbreakers. Additionally, the findings denote that prison provides a poor environment for the inmates’ rehabilitation as it is highly populated (Tonry). The alternate incarceration act method supported by the criminal justice system has offered a remedy in reducing the prison population.

The doubters of alternative sentencing exist, although many arguments raised insist that this alternatives method does not work, it is just a waste of time, and it delays justice since most of these offenders will end up in jail again. Then, if this process is seen unnecessary as in the case of avoidance of overcrowding in courts dockets, the process will rather not be expedited but be unnecessarily extended. Some even argue that the effectiveness in treating criminals can only be achieved if they want to change, show the amenability to change, need, and desire to change as well as receive treatment that will match their desires, needs, and change amenability.


Not only has alternate incarceration reduced the prison population in the USA, but it also has also successfully managed recidivism. As indicated in the finding, many offenders who have been subjected to a number on alternate sentencing exhibit a lower level of recidivism than the offenders who served the jail terms. However, there are opponents of alternate incarceration, but statistics proves otherwise. The bottom line of using alternate sentencing is to use decrease recidivism on the offenders who have served their punishment. Based on the findings, the criminal justice system has reported a decline in the number of drug offenses, which has been attributed to alternate sentencing strategies such as rehabilitation and community services. Additionally, alternate sentencing has helped the national government to cut on the cost involved in running a high-populated prison. Therefore, it is upon the criminal justice system and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to implement other forms of alternative incarceration. Thus, it is fair to conclude that, alternate sentencing method is a way achieving multiple goals as it has managed to reduce the Federal prison population as well as reduce the level of crime in society.

Calculate approximately
Discount applied successfully