The Problem of Prison Overcrowding Must Be Addressed


Approximately one in 35 U.S. adults are incarcerated, on parole or on probation. Prison overcrowding creates stresses that can explode into violence.

The huge number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails cause serious problems of overcrowding. Shoehorning inmates into facilities that were originally designed for much smaller populations creates stress, which can explode into violence, endangering both prisoners and guards.

The National Criminal Justice Association, which represents state, local and tribal governments before Congress, issued a policy statement that says overcrowding in correctional facilities creates “significant safety issues.” In addition, the association says, overcrowding wastes government money and hinders efforts at prisoner rehabilitation.

Scope of the Problem

What causes overcrowding? – Researchers have determined that some of the causes of prison overcrowding are harsher penalties for criminal activities, changes to laws that make new actions illegal, high recidivism rates and needed improvements to the penal system.

The most recent statistics compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that at the end of 2013, there were almost 1,600,000 inmates in federal and state prisons in the United States. Adding in inmates in local jails brings the total to more than 2,200,000. Adding in people on parole and probation brings the total number of individuals under the supervision of the adult correctional system in the United States to almost 6,900,000, which comes out to 2.8 percent of the U.S. population, or one in 35 adults.

The Bureau of Prisons reports that the increased population in federal prisons causes problems for staff, inmates and even infrastructure. In response to the crowded conditions, prisoners are double- and triple-bunked, have to be put on waiting lists for drug-rehabilitation and educational programs, and have less chance of getting meaningful work while incarcerated.

In addition, there are more prisoners for every guard. All of these factors combine to create a situation where prisoners and guards are at risk. Both the guards’ union representatives and officials from the Bureau of Prisons have expressed concerns about the potential for serious incidents.

Proposed Solutions

The National Criminal Justice Association recommends that sentencing policies should be based on evidence, and that the policies should ensure that the highest-risk individuals are the ones who are incarcerated.
Some states have already passed laws that aim to reduce prison population by changing sentencing guidelines and making it easier for inmates to get early release. Some have responded to overcrowding by building more facilities or allowing facilities to be privately run.

Some of the overcrowding in local jails stems from the number of people who are still waiting for their trails. The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the federal Department of Justice, suggests that changes made to pretrial procedures would help relieve some of the overcrowding. Specifically, the institute recommends the use of videoconferencing to speed up the release of people who have been arraigned and are being held in jail while waiting to be tried.

Many students now working toward a bachelor’s in criminal justice degree will be faced, during the course of their careers, with the problem of prison overcrowding. Knowledge that students acquire now can prepare them to contribute to finding solutions in the future to the problems raised by overcrowding.