How to Reduce Prison Overcrowding

Prison overcrowding is one of the largest problems faced by prison systems today. Poor prison conditions come from surpassing prison capacity rates and lead to a decreased quality of life that compromises prisoners’ healthcare, food, privacy and basic living accommodations. The number of prisoners outstrips prison capacities in more than 115 countries around the world, some of the worst in the Americas – El Salvador has a 310% overcrowding rate, Penal reports.

When private companies profit from the construction and administration of prisons, it’s easy to see how an increased number of prisoners benefits others. According to Prison, the criminal justice system of America holds 2.3 million, and the U.S. prison system currently has a 103.9% occupancy rate, according to Forbes. Overcrowding drastically affects the life, health and safety of both prisoners and staff, since it can result in mental health problems and an increased rate of violence, self-harm and suicide. So how can reforms help prisons fulfill their proper functions?

Review and Reform All Processes

One of the first steps is to determine who is in prison and how their needs can be met. Higher incarceration rates of adult males skew data to promote resources in their favor, but the lower percentages of women and children have needs that are unmet and unacknowledged. One major concern is the holding of minors. Nearly 5,000 youth are held in adult facilities according to Prison—should law enforcement detain a parent as well? Can they serve their sentence outside of a custodial institution? Data can be used to decide how best to care for prisoners overall based on effective—and cost-effective—bases to create more humane environments.

There are factors at each step in the process of incarceration that can be reformed to reduce the number of unjust sentences for those that commit minor offenses and those based on socially-biased convictions. Settling minor offenses outside of criminal court with informal or restorative justice solutions prevents the system getting bogged down unnecessarily, while investments in social policy can ensure that those facing criminal court also have better access to legal aid before their trials.

The hope is to limit the number of people in prisons to those whose crimes deserve that kind of punishment. Too often, prisons are crowded with those being held before trial without the ability to bail themselves out, those with non-violent or non-serious crimes, and those that could better serve their sentence elsewhere. Frequently, those kinds of prisoners are better off with non-custodial sentences or sentences that do not entirely take place in prison, like discharges, community service, house arrest and halfway houses.

Early Release and Parole

Awarding those with good behavior and/or productive time with early release or parole is a great incentive to create better environments and outcomes for non-violent prisoners who receive education, rehabilitation or treatment. Standardizing and reducing sentence lengths can lower overcrowded prisons by routinely cutting sentences down to more manageable and suitable times. New York and Kansas are currently examining the benefits of early release; however, many states require a minimum sentence length, making it impossible to grant early releases to deserving prisoners.

Mental Illness and Drug Addiction

Because mental illnesses and drug addiction place many in prison—often times as default—rather than in institutions that would actually benefit them and reduce recidivism, it is vital to see where the system can be reformed to help rather than punish those convicts. Most prisons are ill-equipped to meet the needs of individuals who are mentally ill and create more negative effects that could affect the prisoner once released, resulting in re-offending. Specialist facilities could reduce prison numbers and decrease the likelihood of re-offenses by getting the mentally ill and drug addicts better suited to manage their situations. These prisoners make great candidates for the aforementioned early release programs. New York is in the process of restructuring the state institution to ensure that punishments suit the crimes by reducing minimum sentences for first-time drug offenders and increasing sentences for drug traffickers, rather than treating drug addicts as Class A felons.


Recidivism—the act of re-offending—understandably contributes to high imprisonment rates. Rehabilitation programs and drug and alcohol courses are at the forefront to help those needing recovery assistance. New York has found that these types of programs are 15 times more effective than basic imprisonment and those released commit two-thirds fewer crimes. California’s mass forgiveness program released prisoners by the thousands. Those non-violent prisoners who were mass-forgiven and participated in the realignment plan were not inclined to repeat past crimes or get involved in violent behavior.

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