Of the over 218000 inmates in prisons across the United States, almost half are in for drug-related offences according to McLaughlin (2012). The state of California has some of the strictest laws on drug offenses; though the laws have succeeded in taking the offenders off the streets, it has led to overcrowding in prison facilities. Drug offenses recognized in California include; possession, sale, trafficking and production. Most of the facilities across the state have not been able to handle this increase in prisoners due to their low capacity levels. This threatens the lives of prison guards and prisoners in the facilities due to problems related to congestion.
In 2011, the US Supreme Court made a ruling regarding the overcrowded conditions of California’s prisons. It saw it as a violation of Constitutional requirements and cruelty towards the prisoners subjected to these conditions (Romaine, 2011). This has had a crippling effect on its economy; California is in no position to fund the building of the required number of facilities. The imprisonment of many individuals on petty crimes has reduced the workforce thus lowering the state’s tax income. The state spends over $10 billion annually on prisoners and management of the prison facilities and this is pressure upon the taxpayer.
Overcrowding in prisons has also lowered the opportunities prisoners have to change; rehabilitation facilities are limited due to the high number of inmates. Most of them have to wait just to receive education and drug treatment programs needed to rehabilitate them since they cannot cater for the needs of everyone at once. By the time they are released back into the society, they haven’t reformed and return back to drug dealing activities or even worse.
The high number has forced prison management to limit the use of recreational facilities such as the yard and TV rooms in order to ensure all prisoners get to use them in turns. Inmates thus have fewer opportunities to do constructive work and this idleness causes heightened misconduct and violence among inmates. According to Romaine (2012), overcrowding is directly associated with tension, frustration and anger among inmates who lash out at each other or attack the guards. Despite the rising number of inmates, numbers of guards have not been increased. The high inmate to guard ratio puts the guards at risk; in 2008, there was an incident where a guard was brutally murdered by two inmates. The numbers of assaults continue to increase with each passing day.
Statistics show that almost 80% of inmates serving short-term sentences are in for crimes that don’t pose any danger to members of the society; this includes possession and distribution of drugs. There is a need to find ways of reforming such offenders without taking them to jail thus help deal with the congestion issues (Useem & Piehl, 2012).
There is an option of Probation which is an effective alternative and provides an offender with the chance to prove that he/she can change and become a better person given a second chance. He/she is then assigned to a trained probation officer who is required to monitor the change and how the individual fits back into the society. According to previous studies, almost 12 out of every 1000 people in California are on probation, a number that is higher than in any other US state.
Subsequently, there is Alternative Conviction option; these are treatment programs usually offered to drug offenders who don’t display violent tendencies instead of jail terms. They are provided with constructive penalties for the offenses. These alternatives include; Drug Court, Diversions and Proposition 36 all which do not entail sentencing. Drug Court requires offenders to go through an intensive drug treatment program to help them get clean and reform when the program is completed the court dismisses the case. This is an excellent alternative because it does not require jail time thus reduces the number of people sent to jail annually on drug charges.
Diversion is where an offender pleads guilty of the crime, and consents to attend educational classes in a bid to become rehabilitated after which the case is dismissed from court after a period of 18 months. The third alternative is the Proposition 36 which was passed by the Californians in 2000. The law states that for the case of 1st and 2nd time drug offenders, a jail time is not given, instead, the offenders are to receive substitute abuse treatment in order to change.
Structural changes should be effected in the prison facilities to ease the situation. The Department of Justice officials should set aside funds for the construction of new facilities. Most cells in California have triple bunks (McLaughlin, 2012) prison management has resorted to the use of open spaces to accommodate the fast-growing inmate population. The prisons are characterized by rows of double and triple-stacked bunk beds as the only solution to the problem. The state is currently spending billions of dollars in the construction of more facilities to house the growing number of inmates. The situation can be improved.
Despite all these attempts, the state should concern itself more with coming up with better policies and smart reforms in dealing with criminal offenses especially drug-related ones that are high. When this is accomplished, there will be no need for more facilities because crime will reduce.
McLaughlin, M. (2012). Overcrowding in Federal Prisons Harms Inmates, Guards. Government Accountability Office Report, Retrieved: January 22nd 2013 www.huffingpost.com
Romaine, J. (2011). California Prison Overcrowding: How’s That ‘War on Drugs’ Working Out? International Business Times Retrieved: January 22nd 2013 www.ibtimes.com/california-prison-o
Useem, B. and Piehl, A. M. (2012). Prison State: The Challenge of Mass Incarceration. Cambridge Studies in Criminology