Reforms to Ease Overcrowding in US Prisons
Prisons in the United States are often times in an overcrowded state causing both federal and state prison systems to operate far above their capacity. In 2002, federal prisons in the U.S. were operating 33% above their capacity while state prisons operated between 1% and 17% above their rated capacity. The national rate of imprisonment in the U.S in 2003 was 482 prisoners for every 100,000 residents with some states going higher above the national average. Inmates were by this time serving longer sentences than those imprisoned in earlier years. In 1995 for example, the average duration for imprisonment was 23 months but the rate had risen up to 30 months by 2001. This increase in the length of incarceration can be attributed to changing sentencing laws such as , mandatory minimum sentences and an assortment of three-strike laws that have been responsible for increasing prison terms for repeat offenders. As a result, prison overcrowding has continually posed serious challenges to correctional administrators and this has pushed state and federal law makers into looking for alternatives to incarceration so as to reduce prison population without risking public safety. Various methods of reform that have been used to reduce overcrowding include rehabilitation and community service for the non-violent offender through such alternatives as work programs, half way houses, boot camps, house arrest and drug facilities. Shorter sentences can also be given to the offenders by using probation and electronic monitoring devices (Pollock, p. 44).
Overcrowding in U.S Prisons
During the 1980s, there was a dramatic and massive increase in drug use in the U.S that subsequently led to an equally dramatic increase in the number of offenders arrested for . At this time, the population imprisoned for drug related offenses increased tremendously in U.S prisons, prompting Congress to swiftly react by imposing mandatory strict sentences on those caught in possession or selling certain drugs especially crack cocaine. This move would ultimately help to shape the social composition of state and federal prisons in ways that had never before been witnessed in the U.S. Yet, the tough approach on crime doubled with the war on the U.S correctional system because of the massive drug arrests. In 1981 for example, the capacity of federal and state prisons increased by about 20,000 beds while another 43,000 were under construction. Between 1982 and 1989, the number of prisoners had subsequently increased from 410,000 to 645,604 inmates. This increase necessitated the need for reforms to the correctional system; either reforms that would provide alternatives to the , or government spending to the tune of billions of dollars in construction of new jails and prisons, as well as hiring more manpower to cater for the (Anderson, Dyson & Burns, p. 2).
By the year 1988, U.S inmate rates measured at 247 inmates for every 100,000 residents. Between 1976 and 1988, 25 to 49 persons out of every 1000 people were convicted of property crimes and imprisoned while the number of prisoners for violent crimes rose from 252 to 383 prisoners for very 100 violent crimes, reflecting a 52 % increase. Prison build up accelerated in the 1980s and continued through a modest growth to 2005. The ratio of inmates grew from 276 per 100,000 people to 494 per the same size of population. Non-violent offenders increased tremendously during this period accounting for a slight majority of the build up in state prisons. Between 1980 and 2003, the proportion of violent and property offenders declined from 59% to 51 % and 30% to 21 % respectively. Drug offenders on the other hand increased from a rate of 6% in 1980 to a rate of 21% in 2002 while public offenders also increased from 4% to 7 % during the same period. These increases were also notable in federal prisons although drug offenders increased quite highly between 1980 and 2003 and drug offenders continued to fill federal prisons. As the burden to finance and house prison facilities increased, state and federal law makers began looking for alternatives to imprisonment (Useem & Piehl, pp. 21-22, 56; McGovern & White, pp. 91-93).
As the U.S prison population reached escalating levels, the need for alternative correctional methods to replace imprisonment increased and such methods started gaining considerable popularity. Among the most recent innovations for these alternatives are supervised probation, electronic monitoring or home detention and boot camps. But though merited for their impact in certain cases, all of these alternatives have not so far made any significant impact in reducing prison overcrowding in the U.S. Instead, majority of the convicts who are diverted to into such alternative programs should have been in prison in the first place and an offender who may have been put on supervised probation for example may have ended up serving a sentence in home detention. For these alternative programs to have any impact in reducing prison overcrowding and therefore creating more room for dangerous violent offenders, they must be used as alternatives to imprisonment rather then as alternatives to probation. Alternative correctional systems should be especially used for most first-time drug offenses instead of putting the offenders to prison (Banks, pp. 96-97; Gargan, p. 565, 579).
Probation is a sentence that is used in place of imprisonment. Through probation, low-risk offenders are allowed to serve their sentences while still holding jobs, supporting their families, and generally remaining in their respective communities. They are placed under the supervision of probation officers and are required by law to comply with various conditions defining the program. For those already serving prison terms, parole officers carry out the supervision and these too must comply with various conditions within the program for a fixed duration. Probation in the U.S probably dates back to 1841; an idea conceived by the successful philanthropist and cobbler John Augustus although historical writings dating as far back as 437-422 B.C have evidence of such a practice taking place. At the time of pioneering by John Augustus, no statutes existed to label probation or even prescribe its mode of use. Augustus individually made an attempt to rehabilitate those arrested for alcohol related offenses as well as alcoholics and is famed for intervening in the case of a Boston man who was charged for being a common drunkard. He volunteered to personally supervise this offender and the judge agreed to his proposal. Three weeks later, Augustus returned with a reformed drunkard, to the impression of the judge who imposed a lesser fine of about $4.00 and suspended the 6 months jail term. Between 1841 and Augustus death in 1859, approximately 2000 men and women had been spared imprisonment through his intervention and supervision. His efforts attracted other philanthropic volunteers who started carrying out probation services on both juvenile offenders and adults. This had opened a new era of correctional reform in the U.S (Champion, p. 5, 18).
During the early 1900s, probation became a favorite for reformers of the great Progressive reform wave and by 1930; both the federal government as well as 36 states had introduced probation legislation. By 1940, probation had been embraced in most of rural U.S.A. Until the end of WWII, probation was mainly applied as a measure for showing leniency to minor offenders. A years passed by and imprisonment increased due to rising rate of crime, prisons became overcrowded leading to budget crunches. Increased rate of crime threatened public safety and as a result, a more intensive supervised method of probation popularly referred to as ISP was adapted. ISP is tougher than the traditional method of probation in that convicts must keep a daily contact with assigned probation officers; undergo frequent drug and alcohol testing; receive impromptu visits from officers and are also subjected to intolerance of even the most minor conditions laid down through probation. Apart from reducing prison overcrowding, ISP also aims at rehabilitating offenders, saving on prison expenditure, increasing community protection, as well as proving that probation is punishment and that it can also work in reforming an offender. By creating community harmony between offenders and the public, ISP makes probation budgets more saleable to the general public. ISP has become the most widely used and also most popular intermediate form of punishment in the U.S (Samaha 408-409, 422).
Delivery of probation services is done either through the judicial or executive branches of government. In both cases, probation agencies are responsible for overseeing that probationers comply with the conditions laid down for their supervision. Probation agencies attached to the executive are either parts of the larger state correctional system or may exist as separate systems. Those operating under the judiciary on the other hand work in direct relation with the court system. Probation is also administered through private companies that have been contracted by various courts to provide supervision for misdemeanor cases. A good example of private probation services is to found in the state of Georgia whose Department of Corrections phased out the supervision of probationers and relegated the duties to the Municipal County and Probation Council which in turn contracts private providers of probation services. Private probation companies have come in handy to assist in addressing the nations growing probation population. These companies are as equally effective as the public probation agencies but have an added advantage in that they have better cost-effectiveness, their officers are better paid, and they have more competitive caseloads (Hanser, pp. 184-185, p. 191, p. 210).