Prison overcrowding is a problem largely attributed to the increase of drug convictions. Decades of tough-on-crime laws coupled with minimal financing for treatment programs have left prisons overcrowded and under funded. With the advent of crack cocaine and the response of a scared nation President Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs in 1982 (Clear, Cole, & Reisig, 2009). In 1987 congress implemented mandatory minimum sentencing effectively increasing the time served for drug offenses. The war on drugs has succeeded in increasing the amount of drug offenders incarcerated.
In 1985 the average state drug offense sentence was 13 months, in 2002 that number jumped to 48 months. The government’s efforts to succeed have come at a high cost. State budgets and prison populations have exceeded their respective maximums, although crime rates and drug abuse numbers have dropped, the number of inmates incarcerated continues to rise. A possible solution to the overcrowding issue within prison is to insist a mandatory minimum law reform. This solution would be aimed at not only reducing the amount of time spent in the corrections system but also increasing the amount of drugs needed to qualify for the offense.
Currently in the state of Kentucky if you sell a half a gram of cocaine you could get a possible sentence of 5-10 years for a class C felony; a possible alternative to this sentence is currently being considered. Under the possible new policy an offender would have to sell more than 4 grams of cocaine for the same class C felony and would face a possible sentence of 1-5 years (Drug Courts 2010). Reforming mandatory minimums would not only help to reduce the prison and jail populations but also offer relief for corrections budgets nation wide.
Decriminalization is another possible solution to overcrowding prisons and jails. Decriminalization is the act of removing most laws that now apply to drug use and abuse. The idea being that legalizing drug use would possibly do away with the illegal activity that goes with it. Many of the problems that arise from drug use come from the addict’s efforts to support their habit (Abadinsky, 2008). With the increase in demand and the decrease of availability the cost of many drugs like heroin and cocaine can become overbearing.
If made legal many of the problems associated with drug abuse would be minimized. The cost of the drugs along with the increased availability of them would allow many addicts to lead lives closer to normal. Removing drug laws and the many sentences and inmates they create would mean a large reduction in prison populations. Decriminalization could also prove to eliminate large drug manufacturers and importers. With the drugs becoming easily available and readily affordable large drug traffickers would not longer serve a purpose.
In resent years drugs courts have become more popular and can prove to be another method used to help lower the prison population. Drug courts are a highly specialized team process that functions within the existing Superior Court structure to address nonviolent drug related cases. Drugs courts operate within the existing court structure. They are a team of lawyers, court staff, treatment professionals and probation officers assembled for the purpose of helping the participant achieve recovery. Drugs courts act as a multifaceted arm of the court system that provide supervision, support, authority and encouragement.
These courts divert non-violent drug offenders and substance abusers away from prison and into treatment programs. The average treatment program can cost around $4,000 annually per participant, while incarceration of that same offender is around $25,000-$30,000 annually. This proves a significant savings to the taxpayer and a needed budget relief option. With drug courts aiming to avoid prison time and provide treatment they are also effectively reducing recidivism rates lowering the prison populations of the future.
Forgoing drug courts and sending non-violent drug offenders to jail or prison does not address the problem. They serve their sentence or a portion of it only to be faced with the same addictions and problems once released. Drug courts have shown a compliance rate six times that of any other current method of treating offenders (Drug Court Programs 2003). The drug courts help serve not only the offender but also their family. Studies have shown that participants in drug courts have a 50 percent higher rate of reunification with their children after completing the program (Drug Court Programs, 2003).