Correctional systems across the nation are and have been for quite some time, dealing with severe prison overcrowding issues. Along with the challenge of increasing prison populations, many states are forced to mitigate tough budgetary challenges that witness the shifting and displacement of much needed financial resources from other state governmental needs. These tough financial decisions have been propelled by a very active criminal justice system that has resulted in the incarceration of over “2.3 million Americans or almost 3% of the adult population” (Kaeble & Cowhig, 2018).
While there are numerous reasons citing explanations for the expansive increase in prison populations, the implementation of mandatory minimum sentencing (determinate sentencing), and an aggressive probation system that sends large amounts of offenders to prison for technical violations, seems to be two of the primary contributors to the prison overcrowding issue. It is this challenge of balancing consistent sentencing with realized financial burdens for state and prison administrators that has dictated the narrative of sentencing reform.
By steering away from a retributive form of punishment and embracing the increased use of intermediate sanctions, states can start to realize the cost savings of thousands of dollars per offender each year (Cullen, 2018).
Beginning in the early 1970s, there was a marked shift towards tougher crime sentencing laws in the United States. The “war on drugs” and accompanying “tough on crime” laws beginning in the 1980s, have been widely attributed to the skyrocketing incarceration rates that have increased “500 percent increase over the last forty years” (Eisen & Cullen, 2016). With the aforementioned crime philosophies prompting tougher laws and sentencing guidelines in our courtrooms, the increased use of determinate sentences, or “mandatory minimum sentencing” guidelines, have also contributed to prison overcrowding due to offenders serving longer periods of incarceration.
It is this particular issue regarding mandatory sentencing that has produced much debate as to the sometimes perceived cruel nature of the practice that eliminates judicial discretion and many times targets low-level, non-violent offenders that “forces judges to harshly punish those who pose the least physical danger to communities” (Cullen, 2018).
Another highly controversial and oft misguided sentencing statute that has contributed to higher incarceration rates is the so-called “three-strike” laws. Implemented as a deterrent mechanism towards offenders who have shown an inability to abstain from crime, the practice arguably excessively penalizes offenders who commit a third crime (regardless of severity) after committing two prior felonies. This practice has shown to cause higher rates of incarceration and disproportional amounts of prisoner spending for a relatively minor crime.
Additionally, one study in 2004 tracked UCR crime rates over a 20-year period from 1980-2000 in states with three-strike laws and found that “no credible statistical evidence that passage of three-strike laws reduces crime by deterring potential criminals or incapacitating repeat offenders” (Kovandzic, Sloan, & Vieraitis, 2004) The aforementioned examples are just a small sample of many others that have contributed to mass incarceration rates across the nation. Until true reform is legislatively implemented, these practices will continue to impede state and prison administrators’ efforts to secure funding or reallocate resources in order to sustain large prison populations, while missing opportunities of cost savings with the increased use of diversion programs. According to a 2008 report from The National Association of State Budget Officers, 35 reporting states spent as much as “22 times more to incarcerate prisoners than to supervise them in the community” (National Association of State Budget Officers, 2008).
With the U.S. Criminal Justice System spending tens of billions of dollars annually on incarceration efforts, alternatives such as legislative changes in mandatory sentencing, increased use of diversion sentencing, and graduated sanctions for technical violations of probation, all present very promising opportunities for much-needed cost savings. By committing to a restorative model of offender rehabilitation, states can begin to shift their focus away from stale, retributive philosophies that have proven to be non-effective against criminal deterrence and recidivism rates. The use of graduated sanctions and common sense probation reform can allow low-level, non-violent offenders a second chance and free up the much-needed funds for prison administrators to deservedly house violent criminals during times of tight budgets.