In 2008, about 2.3 million people were confined in American prisons. With nearly one in 100 American adults behind bars, the decisions by corrections officials and policy makers on how best to guide the nation’s prisons directly affects the lives and future of a large and ever-growing segment of the American population.
Between 1990 and 2001, the number of American prisoners over 50 years of age tripled. Aging prison populations due to sentencing protocols, such as “three-strikes” and “mandatory minimums” combined with societal scourges, such as AIDS and tuberculosis, are increasing prison healthcare costs by 10 percent annually and taxing already strained budgets. A report by the Council of State Governments suggests a number of measures to meet this growing demand, including early release of terminally ill and elderly prisoners, preventive education of prisoners and telemedicine, in which inmates “visit” the doctor by video to obtain diagnoses and suggestions for follow-up care.
With many prisons in the United States bursting at the seams, how California handles its overcrowding problem may prove to be a bellwether for the nation. At the end of June 2011, if the United States Supreme Court upholds a lower court order, California will have to reduce its 2011 prison population of 162,000 prisoners by 40,000. Governor Jerry Brown’s “realignment plan” to satisfy the order will include the transfer of non-violent inmates to county supervision, including county jails, house arrest, rehab programs and community service. Additionally, the plan would shift all future, non-violent cases from state parole officers to county supervision, thereby reducing state officers’ caseloads by 10,000 cases.
Analysis of Juvenile Justice
In an article in “Corrections Today,” Todd G. Woodward of the Professional Standards Office of the Kentucky Division of Probation and Parole wrote that an effective way to gauge where the state of adult corrections is heading is to analyze current trends in juvenile justice and corrections. After all, states Woodward, “Today's juvenile offenders are tomorrow's felons.” For example, based on statistics from the 2006 National Center for Juvenile Justice that show re-arrest rates as high as 55 percent, Woodward projects a potential 800,000 per-year increase in the number of adult cases. Having such information can help corrections executives develop policies and strategies for future prison management, states Woodward.
Ethics of Sentencing
In a 2004 “Buffalo Criminal Law Review” article, University of Edinburgh School of Law lecturer Sarah Armstrong cites the lack of uniformity and proportionality in sentencing as major reasons for the explosive growth in America’s prison population. To provide a fairer and “more sensible” future criminal justice system, and to reduce the unsustainable overcrowding now plaguing the nation’s prisons, Armstrong suggests that sentencing must return to the moral and ethical principles that originally informed the penal system -- before Draconian legislation, such as "three-strikes," made a shoplifting conviction with two non-violent prior convictions worthy of a life sentence.