An Easy Solution To Prison Overcrowding: Let Prisoners Out

Numerous states are struggling with overcrowding crises in their prisons, the result of a number of converging factors. Many prison facilities are older, and weren’t built to cope with a growing population or a changing justice system; it’s also extremely hard to renovate prisons safely and effectively. As prisons age, they are eventually aged right out of the prison system because they become unsafe and impractical to use, forcing states to relocate prisoners to other facilities. Developing new prisons is costly and complex, and it’s also big business; companies involved in building and staffing prisons make substantial sums off their government contracts, which hits states where it hurts in the midst of a recession.

The prison population is also strained by the use of mandatory sentencing laws in a number of states, forcing judges to send people to prison for long terms when that’s not necessarily legally necessary or indicated. Such laws don’t allow judges to use common sense and make decisions better suited to individuals and specific cases, and they also tend to disproportionately target communities of colour. Both because people of colour are more likely to make their way into the justice system as a result of profiling and other racist factors, and because the kinds of offenses targeted with mandatory sentencing are associated with low-income people of colour. Disparities in drug possession laws, for example, illustrate this.

As prison populations grow and grow and grow, states struggle to find a way to keep up. California was charged with reducing the prison population by any means possible and went, it seems, for building new facilities and shunting prisoners off on county jail facilities, adding strain in regions already having trouble meeting the needs of current residents. This is not the only option, however: The most obvious solution to overcrowding is much like the solution to an overflowing drain, which is pulling the plug to let some water out and relieve the pressure.

In Illinois, researchers suggest that early release could save the state $153 million, which is no small potatoes. Getting prisoners out of the system would relieve overcrowding and save money, allowing the state to apply it to other critical needs, which sounds a lot like a win-win for everyone. Needless to say, proposals for early release have met with opposition, because some people seem convinced that the prison and justice system are working just fine, and that people in prison should stay there; that they received fair trials, were sentenced reasonably, and must be in prison for a good reason. After all, if they didn’t belong there, they wouldn’t have ended up there, right?

Striking down mandatory sentencing laws is critical for reform, because it will make the justice system more effective and reduce clogs in the prison system. There are numerous people occupying cells right now who shouldn’t be, and along the way, they’re not getting opportunities to develop careers and pursue other paths in life. When they get out of prison with bad records, it makes it harder to find work and training, which means they’re more likely to end up back in the criminal community, and their activities may escalate over time as they struggle to make ends meet in a system that seems stacked against them.

Early release is also an important component of prison reform, which requires rethinking the purpose of prisons. Such facilities are primarily positioned as houses of punishment, with a side of protecting society from the wicked evils of those inside. Approaching the prison system as reformative rather than punitive opens the door to providing training and career opportunities in prisons, and to using good conduct credits in an effective and efficient system. Prisoners can earn their way to early release through good conduct, creating a performance incentive within the system that encourages people to seek out opportunities as they become available.

Of course, such opportunities need to be provided for a good conduct-based system to be effective. A prison with no enrichment for inmates is one where inmates are doomed to failure in any kind of good conduct system, because like any group of people, they get restless when bored, devalued, and treated like inconveniences rather than human beings. And such systems cannot be effective in a deeply racist system where any kind of merit-based rewards may be disproportionately applied to white inmates while inmates of colour receive demerits; the racial biases at the heart of the inequalities in the prison population’s demographics are also carried on in administrators, guards, and other personnel who have tremendous power over inmates.

The current prison system clearly isn’t effective for its stated purpose; if it was, far fewer people would commit crimes. Since it’s not working, it’s obviously time to reassess its function and probe ways in which it might change to better serve the public, and that includes the criminals it’s supposed to be targeting, whether for punishment or reformation, depending on the point of view of the speaker. Prisons are warehouses for human beings, serving no real function and eating up substantial resources while racking up significant human rights violations. There’s no reason to continue tolerating the status quo in the prison system when alternative and more effective systems are clearly available; at least, for those who are willing to think outside the box when it comes to crime and justice.

California wants to solve its overcrowded prisons? Open the doors.