What Is the Impact of Overcrowding on Sentencing Guidelines?

Here’s a simple truth: Our correctional systems in the United States are crowded. The United States has a prison population of approximately 2.3 million according to Bureau of Justice Statistics. That equates to approximately 481 people incarcerated per 100,000 of the population[1]. The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the United States territories[2]. It therefore comes as little surprise that overcrowding has become a serious problem in correctional facilities across the United States today.

While the causes of this overcrowding are many, some look back to the 1970s to pinpoint the beginning of the problem. From the 1970s throughout the 1990s, the United States government vigorously pursued its “War on Drugs.” Since they officially declared the beginning of the War on Drugs in 1982, the number of people incarcerated in the United States for drug offenses has skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 450,345 in 2016. In fact, today, there are more people incarcerated for drug offenses than the total number of people who were in prison or jail for any crime in 1980, which is an astounding fact to consider. Moreover, the number of people sentenced to prison for property and violent crimes has also increased, even during periods when actual crime rates declined[3].

In addition, harsh sentencing laws like mandatory minimums, combined with cutbacks in parole releases, have served to keep people in prison for longer periods of time. Indeed, the National Research Council recently reported that half of the 222% growth in the state prison population between 1980 and 2018 was due to an increase in time served in prison for all offenses[4].

While certainly effective in achieving its aim of obtaining multitudes of drug-related convictions year after year, the War on Drugs and stringent sentencing guidelines have had some lasting and, perhaps, unforeseen consequences. One of those consequences, without question, has been overcrowded prisons. This is a problem that continues to this day, as drug offenses still account for the incarceration of almost half a million people and nonviolent drug convictions remain a defining feature of the federal prison system.

The Consequences of Overcrowding

Understandably, overcrowding is one of the key contributing factors to poor, unsafe, and unsanitary conditions. Correctional facilities that are severely overcrowded are also often severely understaffed. In addition, the staff that are present often quit in short order due to factors like burnout, forced overtime, and poor wages. Overcrowded facilities can also produce worsened health outcomes, decreased psychological well-being, and increased risk of suicide. These harsh realities and unsustainable conditions on any number of levels have led states to struggle to reform their corrections systems and reduce their incarceration rates. In the face of massive overcrowding in jails and prisons across the United States, the question is now often being asked: Does it truly make sense to be imprisoning this many people?

In light of the tremendous overcrowding in our correctional systems, lawmakers and concerned members of the community are beginning to ask whether much of the incarceration occurring today is truly about public safety and keeping dangerous people off the streets. Important conversations are occurring concerning the social, economic, and moral costs of incarceration and lifelong punishment.

What Can Be Done about It?

The good news, coming from these conversations and from the actions of those motivated to act as catalysts for change, is that, after nearly 40 years of continued growth, the United States prison population has recently begun to stabilize. While this is partially the result of declining crime rates, it is also a direct result of ongoing efforts at criminal justice reform. We are seeing a wide variety of legislative, judicial, and policy-level changes that are decreasing incarceration without a negative impact on public safety. What are some of those reforms?

At the state level, we are seeing legislatures across the country take steps to reduce previously imposed harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses. Funds that are saved as a result of not having to care for all of those individuals in the prison system are being reinvested into much-needed prevention programs. At all levels, activists continue to urge policymakers to revise criminal justice policies with the ultimate goal of reducing the rate of incarceration. These aims include reviewing mandatory minimums, long sentences, and drug laws, and to consider more community-based alternatives to prison.

At the federal level, we are seeing increased trends toward reducing excessive sentences for crimes like non-violent drug offenses. For example, in 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission unanimously voted to reduce excessive sentences for up to 46,000 people currently serving time for federal drug offenses. Additionally, in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which aimed to reduce the disparity in the harsher sentences meted out for drug offenses involving crack, in comparison to those involving cocaine, with the overall aim of incarcerating fewer individuals for less time.

The good news is that the recent decline in the number of federal prosecutions and in the severity of sentences for drug-related offenses has resulted in a significant drop in the federal prison population. This is according to statistics from the Judiciary, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP)[5]. According to those statistics, the federal prison population dropped from nearly 219,300 inmates in 2013 to 188,800 in April 2017, which is nearly a 14 percent reduction.

Ultimately, though significant strides have been made in the attempt to reduce sentence length and devise more societally productive, less costly alternatives to incarceration, there is still much work to be done. Activists and policymakers, intent on change, continue to devise and attempt to implement new methods to this pressing problem. We here at 303 Legal, P.C., hope that ongoing progress will continue to be achieved.