Over the last three decades, the United States has quietly increased its federal prison population by unprecedented numbers. In fact, from 1980 to 2015, the inmate population skyrocketed from 25,000 inmates to roughly 205,000, growing an average of 5,900 inmates each year.
This increase is attributable to the elimination of parole, sweeping reform to Federal Criminal Code, making more state crimes also federal offenses, and the growing number of first-time offenses subject to mandatory minimum sentences.
Could growth both in state and federal prisons spell early release for some non-violent criminals? The answer resides somewhere between Congressional action, and the creation of programs aimed at lowering the recidivism rate.
Underlying Issues Contributing to Growth
Early indication from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) must meet numerous challenges due to this increase in the inmate population.
According to GAO, BOP reports that:
- Inmates at higher risk of committing violence in prison are being grouped with lower-risk victims in double and triple bunking arrangements;
- The benefits drug and education programs can provide inmates are not being realized due to long waiting lists, which puts inmates on “idle” status. Extended idleness can threaten institutional security and lower recidivism rate;
- Few meaningful work opportunities are also contributing to inmates remaining idle too long;
- Overcrowded visiting rooms means some inmates are denied visitation, creating another threat to inmate and staff security; and
- Inmates are outnumbering staff by larger numbers as each year grows, causing staff to work exhaustive hours. This also reduces inmate-staff communication, which is vital in deescalating threats to inmate security.
Federal prison overcrowding also taxes BOP’s infrastructure that, by design, is meant to control smaller prison populations. Also, as facilities age, maintenance intervals increase with it, driving up costs of building upkeep.
Options for the BOP
Expanding federal facilities seems like an easy fix to an age-old problem. However, there are more creative ways to address overcrowded prisons other than creating more room to lock people up.
The BOP has reported long-term success with cognitive-behavioral programs, community-based drug treatment programs, and vocational programs designed to prepare inmates for work upon release. These programs are viable options for prisons facing high recidivism, but fail to address the bevy of new inmates entering the system for low-level charges.
Private prisons are another option Congress is kicking around, although these for-profit lockups are more likely to offer less reform since these private companies are incentivized to keep inmates longer.
One possible option could be increasing the credit-time given to inmates with lower security levels, or putting these inmates on electronic monitoring when they are within 90 days of release. Reworking the Federal Criminal Code to lessen sentences may also be an option worth exploring, although getting bipartisan support may require more work than it is worth.
Using probation or other alternative sentences more frequently could also reduce BOP strain, even if that means increasing the frequency with which defendants visit their probation officer.
Overpopulation is the Oldest Conversation Topic
People are talking about state and federal prison overpopulation every year, although little is done to curb increases. Helpful programs are there, as are alternative sentences. It is up to judges, prosecutors, and criminal defense attorneys to come to an agreement so first-time offenders can correct their actions and avoid reoffending.
It is unknown how many low-level inmates are battered, or killed, each year. What is known is that prison overcrowding must be addressed before the staff-to-inmate ratio spirals out of control, making federal correctional facilities the least likely place to reform an offender’s actions.
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