In a news article written in the Greensboro News Record it was brought to the public's attention that the state of North Carolina was planning on opening up three new prisons some time this year. It is estimated that it will cost around $8 million to staff the facilities. People may wonder as to why the prisons are becoming so over crowded, and it would be easy for those same people to think that more crimes are being committed now a days then ever before. According to an article written by Matt Williams, a staff writer for the Greensboro News Record, it is highly likely that it is not an increase in crime at all causing the over crowding of prisons but instead the side effects of structured-sentencing laws.
"Some of that growth can be attributed to structured-sentencing laws... ." said Susan Katzenelson, director of the N. C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. The laws Susan Katzenelson was referring to when commenting, were those laws which put a large emphasis on giving early release options for criminals in jail for petty crimes, in addition to their already shorter sentences and leaving only the hardened criminals to occupy the prison spaces. Susan Katzenelson added that even though the prison population actually decreased as all the petty criminals were released, it wasn't long after that those same spaces were being occupied by hardened criminals with much longer sentences, leaving no room for anyone else.
The article makes a good argument that those sentencing guidelines that allowed for early release of petty offenders and longer sentences for serious criminals would have an overcrowding effect because all the jail cells would be occupied by prisoners not soon to be released. In the meantime, petty offenders where still committing crimes and now the system has no where to house them. The only solution to the overcrowding of prisons, since the new sentencing guidelines, would be to build more prisons and the state of North Carolina has made plans to do just that. The news of erecting three new prisons has unfortunately caused public and political concerns; after all, nothing comes for free. Staffing the facilities alone are going to cost the state somewhere near the vicinity of $8 million and that's not including building supplies, heating, cooling, electricity, furnishings and of course food. The fact that most of the prisoners will eventually be released at some point is inevitable; however, while they are still incarcerated, it is necessary to know that it cost on average $30 more per day to house a maximum security prisoner verses a minimum security prisoner and as mentioned previously, it is the maximum security prisoners currently taking up all the space.
Budget cuts are going to have to take place in order to fund the new prisons and all their furnishings and Governor Easley has some questionable ideas as to where those cuts will take place. According to the Governor the rehabilitation programs that were once offered to maximum security prison inmates may no longer exist. As a result of the overcrowding, the programs to help rehabilitate the inmates are being cut. Governor Easley's recommendation to resolve this financial conflict is to cut back on substance-abuse programs, probation officers and prison chaplains. If you send ex-convicts back into the society that have not been rehabilitated, they are more likely to end right back in prison. It will be a vicious cycle of over crowded prisons, more spending on new prisons and more cuts on the programs that generally may have prevented the return of an ex-convict.
There is no question that sentencing guidelines have an effect of prison overcrowding. The many examples written in the article show a clear correlation between the long-term sentences served by hardened criminals, the early release of petty criminals and the rapid replacement of the petty criminals with more hardened criminals. The problem snowballs when the prisons become overcrowded calling for more prisons, then in order to fund the new prisons, economic cutbacks of the very programs that were designed to keep the criminals off the streets are either making the rehabilitation minimal or in some cases non-existent. You take the rehabilitation away and you eventually release the prisoner and he is more likely to return to prison. Although the newspaper article brought up some very real and very valid issues concerning prison overcrowding and sentencing guidelines, it is unreasonable for anyone to jump to the conclusion that the problem presented was caused by only one factor. It is very real that some of the overcrowding in prisons can be contributed to the sentencing guidelines discussed; however, it is important not to ignore all of the other possible factors and changes that have taken place over the years that have had an influence on the problem.
Between 1997 and 1999 there were more than 50, 000 new police officers put on the streets in the attempt to keep crime off the streets. As part of President Clinton's huge campaign to reduce crime he was able to win funding in 1997 to pay the new officers. In 1999 President Clinton made another promising statement in his State of the Union Address: Our balanced budget will help put up to 50, 000 more police on the street in the areas hardest hit by crime, and then to equip them with new tools from crime mapping computers to digital mug shots. President Clinton's speech (As cited in Reiman, J. , 2001).
Whether or not crime actually increased over the last six years, it is evident that the arrests for crime have. More funding not only for police officers but both mapping and digital equipment alike has helped to promote safer streets. Consequently, it would only make sense that more arrests would lead to more convictions leading to more incarcerations. "Between 1980 and 1996 the number of persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons nearly quadrupled, growing from 329, 00 to nearly 1. 2 million." Reiman, J. (2001).
The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison Ideology, class, and Criminal Justice (6 th ed. ). Ma. : Allyn & Bacon.
Simply put, over the years as a country we have developed in ways technologically that have enabled our law enforcers to keep better track of the criminals on our streets. That, in combination with a president who was motivated for many different reasons to narrow in on the crime problem, helped to create a situation where more criminals then ever before were being locked up. While it has been established that it is feasible for both sentencing guidelines and increased arrest rates to be contributing factors in the over crowding of prisons, it is important to be aware that sentencing guidelines were originally made in an attempt to reduce disparity. It is only co-incidental that a second function came about that resulted in the possible tailoring of sentences to prison capacity. Marvell, T.
B. (1995). Sentencing Guidelines and Prison Population Growth. The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 85 (3), 969-709. More specifically, their was a study conducted involving nine states including: Delaware, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin. Six out of the nine were told to consider prison capacity when drafting their new sentencing guidelines, one indirectly and five directly.
Out of the nine states only three were not told to take prison capacity into consideration. The study took place over a period of 10 years using prison population data starting from the 1970's and comparing it to the nation's trends for ten years after the guidelines were changed. According to Marvell (1995), when the study finally ended, the results showed that, with the exception of Wisconsin, compared to nationwide trends, there was clearly a strong association between the guidelines and the slower growth of prison populations in those states who had added the request to take prison capacity into account when sentencing. The three states who did not take prison population into consideration when implementing guidelines, showed no significant decline in prison growth and in some ways no decline at all. It was comforting to learn that in addition to those findings, Marvell was able to show that the sentencing guidelines had very little impact on the number of defendants actually sentenced to prison; rather, it was the changes in the term length that made the difference in prison population growth. It definitely would have made me leery of the judicial system to think that a criminal, fully deserving of a prison sentence, may have gotten off without punishment for his crime simply because there was not enough room in the prisons.
Marvell's study suggested that this was not the case. For reasons associated with prison length and prison over crowding, Marvell's study had some relevance to the claim made in the newspaper article previously cited. In the article it was argued that the sentencing guidelines did have an effect on prison population growth; although the complaint revolved around the notion that it was the guidelines causing the overcrowding, there was still, never the less, a connection between the two. Both examples clearly showed a relationship between prison guidelines and the prison population in the areas in which the guidelines were implemented. The first example showed a discrepancy in the guidelines that came dangerously close to blaming them for the overcrowding in the system.
The article also specifically mentioned that the sentence length given to each prisoner had something to do with the crowding. Although it was mentioned that the guidelines were the cause of only "some" of the overcrowding problems, it failed to mention the other factors that may have been contributing to the problem resulting in only half the story that very well could have left the reader mis informed. Marvell's study, which tested a similar hypothesis, complimented the newspaper article very nicely by showing the other side to the story. When looked at in a broad sense, both the article and the study do technically agree with each other with regards to the idea that sentencing guidelines do in fact have an impact on the prison system population.
It is only when looked at more carefully does one notice that unlike the claim in the newspaper article, the effects on population proved positive in Marvell's study by suggesting that the guidelines mentioned and tested showed a strong relationship between the decline in prison population in the states in which they were implemented. Despite the fact that both the article and the study touched upon a subject that sparks the interests of not only law enforcement officials but the tax paying public as well, it is always logical to question the information being presented in any article that only gives half the story. More times than not, it would appear that in an attempt to persuade the public, persuasive articles of any kind very rarely give the whole story. It is up to the individual and reader to take the time to search for the rest of the story. In the case of the newspaper article, the information was presented in a sequential fashion showing the natural progression of consequences resulting from longer sentencing for hardened criminals.
It was easy to get caught up in the facts being presented and lose sight of the claim that was being made. The article clearly tried to show that sentencing guidelines did have an effect on prison population; however, it failed to show the positive effects prison guidelines can have with regards to the overcrowding of prisons. It only focused on the negative aspects of those guidelines that could very well have lead the reader to believe that guidelines in general were of no help at all to the prison system and could have possibly been a waste of time. On the other hand, the study done by Marvell, which was very nicely presented because it included lots of evidence to support the hypothesis, put a lot of focus on the positive effects of guidelines.
In conclusion, sentencing guidelines do have an effect on the population in the prisons. How the guidelines are written and how they are interpreted decide what kind of an effect that will be. It is true that not all people heed the recommendations put in sentencing guidelines as Marvell pointed out in his study, but that is to be expected, there is always an exception to the rule when dealing with people and individual rights and freedoms to make decisions. The important thing is that in at least two situations, as pointed out in my review, the effects were present in both positive and negative ways. Important, because it is now clear that sentencing guidelines are an effective medium to use in order to make changes in the prison systems; therefore, it would behoove the government to keep amending and tailoring those guidelines until they finally get it to be more effective in a positive rather then negative ways. It is safe to say that less crime would result in less convictions and as a result free up some of the space in the prisons.
Until society as a whole can figure out a way to reduce and prevent crime as a whole, it is a smart decision to make the consequences of those crimes at a minimum for the innocent public and at a maximum rehabilitative effectiveness for those who commit them crimes. The more balanced the judicial and prison systems can get the safer and happier society will be and sentencing guidelines are a nice start. References Williams, M. (2002, Summer). State Getting Ready To Open Three Prisons. Greensboro New Company, B 5.
Reiman, J. H. , (2001). The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice (6 th ed. ). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Marvell, T. B. (1995). Sentencing Guidelines and Prison Population Growth. The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 85 (3), 969-709..