Effective Methods for Reducing Prison Populations

A number of criminologists have expressed the view that probation, at least in the case of non-violent and first offenders can reduce the prison population and thereby reduce overcrowding. (Guarino-Ghezzi, 387) However, in order for this approach to be effective, the probation system will require some reform. As it currently stands, both probation and parole officers in the US typically meet with convicts for between 5 and 20 minutes on a monthly basis. (American Legislative Exchange Council, 2)

In other words, prisoners who are typically released on probation or parole are poorly supervised leaving the general population with the impression that they are free to reoffend. (Durham, 176) The general public position is that criminals are either sentenced to prison or receive “nearly nothing”. (Durham, 177) Perceptions and attitudes toward probation change when the public is provided a choice between imprisonment and strict, as opposed to the current disorganized method of probation. (Durham, 177)

For instance in a survey conducted among 1000 citizens from among the general population of California, where 25 hypothetical cases were given, the surveyed Californians allotted 60 percent of the cases to imprisonment rather than probation. When the respondents were subsequently provided with a choice between imprisonment and strict probation however, only 27 percent of these cases were allotted imprisonment. (Durham, 177) This survey indicates the significance of combining retributive justice with corrective justice. In order for criminal justice approaches to work, correction and rehabilitation must be combined with retribution.

(Stinchcomb, 2) If the public is disenchanted with the retributive justice approach, the prisoner released on probation will be largely alienated by an un-accepting public making his adjustment largely counterproductive. (McCorkle, 240) In other words, unless and until the public has confidence in the punitive and corrective methods of probation, it cannot effectively reduce prison populations. This is because, public perceptions of a flawed system of punishment and rehabilitation prevents the prisoner’s effective reintroduction into the community and thereby increases the risk of recidivism.

This is particularly problematic since the current probation system is largely disorganized and prisoners released on probation are typically unsupervised which in and of itself increases the risk of recidivism. It therefore follows that in order for probation to effectively reduce the prison population probation officers will have to subscribe to a far stricter method of supervision and management of prisoners released on probation. b) Fines Criminologists often recommend fines, probation, community service and suspended sentences as alternatives to imprisonment representing an appropriate response to prison overcrowding.

(Snacken and Beyens, 84) Various jurisdictions have already subscribed to a substituted system whereby fines, community services, driving bans, house arrest and prescribed forms are treatment are handed out rather than short custodial prison sentences. (Council of Europe, 73) The difficulty with applying a penal fine as a means of circumventing prison sentences, is that a fine will have to be realistically applied if it is going to function as a substitute for imprisonment.

In the first place restitution would have to be an appropriate sentence in order to satisfy the demands of retributive justice. (Einstadter and Henry, 25) Conceivably, only cases involving petty theft, property damages, fraud and like cases would be likely to meet the demands of retributive justice. Ultimately, the victim and the public at large will be compensated and the convict would have been forced to accept responsibility for his or her conduct.

Secondly, if the offender is unable to pay the fine, imprisonment for contempt of court would likely follow making the imposition of fines futile for the purpose of reducing prison populations. In this regard, the imposition of penal fines can only be applied in limited circumstances. As such it will not and has not effectively reduced prison overcrowding. The fact is fines have been used in criminal justice systems for quite some time now and have only had a marginal impact on the reduction of prison population.

(Blomberg and Cohen, 461) Perhaps the greater use of fines in minor offences involving loss of property may be an option, but it is unlikely to have an appreciable impact on the prison population. This is because for the most part, unemployment and minimal or no income is the most common link to criminal conduct and offenders will not likely be able to satisfy penal fines on their own with the result that imprisonment will likely follow at some stage following default or repeat offending.