Discovery Guides Areas


The Drain of Public Prison Systems and the Role of Privatization:
A Case Study of State Correctional Systems

(Released February 2010)

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  by David W. Miller  


Key Citations



Relationship between Overcrowding and Criminal Justice Policy


According to Abransky (2009), overcrowding as a result of more punitive criminal justice policy and huge state budgets to keep public prisons operating fostered in a new era of privatization in the 1980s. Holleman et al. (2009) identified a direct relationship between overcrowding and increased state corrections budgets. Criminal justice policy that brought in a new era of punitive rather than rehabilitative strategies is often cited as the primary source of overcrowding. For instance, Holleman et al. (2009) note that penal spending has drastically increased since punitive criminal justice policies were implemented in the 1980s, while funds toward other programs (e.g. health care and education) have remained static or decreased (Holleman, et al., 2009). Abransky (2009) identifies the "war on drugs" policy that focused on harsher penalties for crimes committed largely by inner city, ethnic minority groups as the primary cause of the increase in incarceration rates (Abransky, 2009). Other policies impacting prison populations that researchers have identified include mandatory sentencing and punishing technical parole violations rather than extending parole time.

woman smoking
Woman smoking crack cocaine

However, some researchers suggest that the "war on drugs" campaign was a necessary means to curb the rising use of crack cocaine that led to more violent types of crime, including crimes committed during the drug's distribution in the informal market. For instance, as late as 2003, studies showed a direct correlation between state level rises in violent crimes and crack cocaine use (National Drug Intelligence, 2003). One particular study goes on to note that African Americans in street gangs represent the number one distributor of crack cocaine and highlights its correlation: "Violent crime in the state often is associated with crack cocaine distribution and abuse. Crack abusers often commit violent crimes to support their addiction, and crack distributors commonly commit violent crimes to protect their drug operations" (National Drug Intelligence, 2003) However, negative profiling of African American youth also appears prevalent, as indicated by arrest percentages. For instance, despite making up 12% of the illegal use and distribution of crack cocaine, African Americans make up 44% of offenders convicted on crack cocaine related crimes. However, the majority of prisoners remain violent offenders; thus, the argument could be made that these policies did indeed decrease crime rates by removing violent offenders. For instance, although violent crime has been decreasing, the conviction rate has increased. In other words, offenders committing a violent crime are more likely to receive prison sentences today than they were prior to changes to criminal justice policy made in the 1980s. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, this trend has led to an increase in the percentage of violent offenders in public prison populations. As of 2001, nearly 50% of prisoners were serving time for committing a violent crime (e.g. murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) in contrast to 20% serving time for drug related offenses. In addition, the significant increase of the public prison population is because of the successful arrest and imprisonment of violent offenders (Harrison and Beck, 2003).

crackspoon & powder
Spoon containing baking soda, cocaine, and a small amount of water,a "poor-man's" crack-cocaine
A study that examined the correlation between violent crime rates and policy in New York suggests this to be the case. For instance, supporters of New York's tougher gun control argue that this policy is directly related to the drop in homicide rates, which was 9.8 of 100,000 inhabitants in 1991, and has been dropping since to its 2008 rate of 5.4 per 100,000 inhabitants (Why are Violent, 2010). One source explains that "tougher sentencing probably took some career criminals off the streets — though there's little evidence that the death penalty deters murder. No doubt new lifesaving medical techniques turned potential homicides into lesser offenses — yet aggravated assault is down, too." (Why are Violent, 2010) Indeed, the FBI, on its website, notes a significant decrease in crime rates since harsher jail sentences became common practice in the 1980s, highlighting a 25% decrease from 1987 to 2007 in the state of New York. These numbers lead one professor to state, "while we certainly want to be smart about who we put into prisons . . . it would be a mistake to think that we can release any significant number of prisoners without increasing crime rates" (One in 100).

Despite research that supports a correlation between tougher sentencing policy and significant increases in the prison population, some researchers have found different results. For instance, Zhang (2009) argued that policies have an indirect impact on prison population, but did find that the reduction of parole programs and re-directing parole violators back into the prison system increased prison population size. California's practice of punishing probation violators with prison sentences also has increased the prison population. Indeed, these violators now make up a majority of prisoners in California. Since rehabilitation programs became less popular during the 1980s, Zhang's argument could actually support the notion that changes in criminal justice policy led to an increase in prison population sizes. Other researchers have concluded that criminal justice policy changes that enforced tougher jail time and fewer leniencies on first time offenders led to an increase in prison population, emphasizing data that shows a decrease in crime rates at the same time that correctional facilities became overburdened with prisoners (Abransky, 2009; Holleman, 2009).

Whatever one's position on more punitive measures, both sides agree that a primary factor behind the growth of prison populations is not that more crime is being committed, but that criminal justice policy has changed to (a) implement harsher punishments on offenders, and (b) criminalize activity that once was treated less harshly. In short, the growth "flows principally from a wave of policy choices that are sending more lawbreakers to prison and, through popular 'three-strikes' measures and other sentencing enhancements, keeping them there longer" (One in 100, 2007).

chart of incarcerated population
Incarcerated Americans

Because of tougher criminal justice policy and focus on punishment, the US became a world leader in prison population size during the 1980s. By 1990, 421 out of every 100,000 Americans were in prison, and today that statistic stands at 1 out of every 100 Americans, a jump from 4% to 1% of the total population. Thus, Tonry (2007) notes, "The number of people in prisons is rising in many countries. In absolute terms, the United States is the extreme case: the incarceration rate per 100,000 population for persons confined in federal and state prisons grew by 333 per cent from 83 in 1972 to 403 in 1995." Currently, the United States, which represents 5% of the world's population, has 2.5 million prisoners, the largest inmate population worldwide. China, which houses 1.5 million prisoners, ranks second and Russia ranks third with a total of 870,000 prisoners. In addition, most western societies have an incarceration rate around 100 per 100,000 people. However, the United States has hovered in the mid 400-700 range since the 1980s, with a recent report claiming a 1,000 per 100,000 people rate, or 1 out of every 100 adults serving time in prison (One in 100, 2008). Russia has the second highest incarceration rate at 611. In short, the United States houses over 25% of the total world prison population. Upon reading the numbers, Ryan King, a policy analyst for The Sentencing Project, stated, "We send more people to prison, for more different offences, for longer periods of time that anybody else" (Vicini, 2006). These numbers represent a significant prison population, with many prisons operating at an overcapacity rate. For instance, California state prisons have reached a 170% capacity rate, with some exceeding population limits by 150%. Largely because of this increase, privatized prisons were re-introduced into the correctional system after nearly a century of being classified as unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.

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