Overcrowding: Are we talking about the right things?

Overcrowding: Are we talking about the right things?

Jails and prisons are overcrowded. Health and safety are at risk in ways we didn’t anticipate. Is your state or county looking to your agency to solve the problem? Is lowering recidivism rates the only answer?

In many jurisdictions, the first place people look when the jails and prisons are overcrowded is at rehabilitation and supervision programming. And while the work you do makes a substantial impact on crime in your community, the work of reducing the inmate population can’t be done by you alone.

As with all justice reforms, this has to be a collaborative effort. When states approach overcrowding not just from the supervision side, but also from the legislative side, they see very positive results.

Legislative reforms can include:

  • Reduced penalties for property offenses and lesser drug crimes
  • Sentencing reforms including scaling back sentencing enhancements for drug zones or prior felonies
  • Expanded release options
  • Accelerated commutation process
  • Legislative oversight and accountability

According to research done by the Vera Institute of Justice, Missouri had the largest percent decrease in prison population from 2017-2018 (-6.8%), which came after state lawmakers reduced sentences for some felonies and reclassified marijuana possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.1

Following a set of corrections reforms passed by South Carolina in 2010, the state’s prison population dropped by 14% between 2009 and 2016, their imprisonment rate fell 16%, and the share of prison space prioritized for violent offenders rose by 27%. Not only that, but the state has saved $491 million through averted spending and reduced operating costs.2

Oklahoma instituted an accelerated commutation process, and in 2019, more than 400 people were approved for expedited commutation. California repealed sentencing enhancements for felonies, and Delaware repealed sentencing enhancements for “drug free” school zones. At least three other states have followed suit. 3

These states and more are taking a broader look at overcrowding, and it’s working.

If it feels like all eyes are on you in the overcrowding conversation, it’s time to start collaborating. Connect with your partners at other agencies, talk to your legislators, and start a conversation with stakeholders about what your jurisdiction needs to do to address jail overcrowding from multiple perspectives.

We can help. We’ve been advising agencies like yours for over three decades, and we can help your agency work more efficiently than ever, letting you focus on the bigger picture. Give us a call today.

1 The Marshall Project
2 Pew Research Center
3 The Sentencing Project