A Research Summary of the Problem of Prison Overcrowding

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The United States boasts the largest per capita prison population in the world. As a result, the corrections system faces a systemic problem in the form of prison overcrowding. In response to this problem, state governments and local municipalities have attempted to implement various early release programs in an attempt to reduce the severity of this persistent challenge. This paper presents a summary of two research efforts with explanations of their findings tailored for law enforcement, courts, corrections, juvenile justice, homeland security. The two research efforts in question are “A Guide to Data Collection and Analysis” (Bush, 1982) prepared by the American Justice Institute (AMJ), and a review of several early release programs implemented in Washington State.

A Research Summary of the Problem of Prison Overcrowding

One of the most significant challenges faced by the United States criminal justice system is the persistent problem of prison overcrowding in the U.S. and the threat to public safety that this problem creates. Local municipalities and state governments have attempted to address this complex problem through a variety of strategies, but the problem persists despite these efforts.

Washington State’s Early Release Efforts

Washington State implemented six early release efforts from 1974 to 1984. During this time thousands of inmates were released, and in the second effort, as much as eleven months before their expected release date. However, the prison population never fell below 106 percent of the rated capacity of Washington’s State institutions.

Washington State’s early release efforts first began in 1979 as directed by a successful lawsuit against the correction system (Hoptowit vs. Ray). Although the specific rulings of this case were later overturned by the 9th circuit court, Washington was admonished to maintain a Penitentiary capacity, “Appropriate for the protection of personal safety and the provision of necessary services” (Sims & O’Connell, 1985). This effort saw the release of 1,674 inmates over the course of a decade. It is important to note again that not a single one of these release efforts actually reduced the prison population below the rated capacity of Washington State’s penitentiary. However, the state corrections system found that “Without the early release efforts, the overcrowding problem would have been an average of three percentage points worse, and at times up to eight percentage points more overcrowded” (Sims & O’Connell, 1985). The problem persisted because emptying beds ultimately did not solve the problem; it is only a temporary alleviation of the symptoms.

Washington determined the increase to risk in public safety using three perspectives: Recidivism within the period of parole, offense dates before originally anticipated release date, and whether the community was victimized earlier as a result of an inmate being released early. Surprisingly there was only a 12.1 percent recidivism rate amongst the total population of prisoners who were paroled during these release efforts which suggests that there was not an alarming increase to public safety as a result of these prison population control efforts. Overall then, it can be concluded that Washington was successful in implementing these programs, just not successful enough.

Guide to Data Collection and Analysis

The American Justice Institute (AMJ) created this guide in order to assist jurisdictions with reducing prison overcrowding and, “Underutilization of pretrial alternatives to incarceration in your jurisdiction” (Bush 1982). The guide features a suggested program for the establishment of a Jail Population Management Board, which is made of representatives of each criminal justice agency in a county. This board is then directed to, “Formulate hypotheses about the causes of jail overcrowding and the absence/underutilization of alternatives to pretrial detention” (Bush 1982). It was the AMJ’s conviction that

The AMJ determined that there were several critical decision points that need to be addressed in the defendant processing cycle. During the arrest phase, it was determined that officers generally underutilized alternatives to arrest including citations, dispute resolution, and referral to treatment programs, and that police records were often so poorly kept that it was difficult to determine how defendants were appraised in the pre-trial process. The study also concluded that many inmates were eligible for release on recognizance (ROR), but were never interviewed. Many jurisdictions reported that prosecuting attorneys were slow to file formal charges against defendants and that this led to significant overcrowding in detention centers. The study also found that inmates requiring a pre-sentence investigation report contributed to overcrowding because many of these reports required lengthy periods of time to complete.

Applications for the Criminal Justice System

Prison population control must be an effort on the part of each branch of the justice system. The solution begins with the first step of the criminal justice system, which is law enforcement. Agencies must attempt to use alternatives to incarceration when apprehending offenders, including citations, non-written warnings, and referrals to treatment facilities. The pre-sentencing period of the criminal justice process must be executed efficiently and ROR must be fully utilized. The court system similarly should pursue judgments that rely on probation, community service, or rehabilitation rather than time served in order to free up beds. The AMJ found that in the Sacramento area as many as 880 inmates were serving time for misdemeanor offenses (Bush 1985). These preliminary agencies must be effective in regulating the flow of inmates because the problem cannot be solved on the corrections level alone. As evidenced by the studies done in Washington State, early release cannot completely solve the overcrowding problem. At the Juvenile offender level, it is important that rehabilitation is given precedence over time in a facility because it is especially possible for first-time offenders to become recidivists, which further compounds the congestion at higher levels. Finally, homeland security must be free to utilize facilities to deal with serious problems, and not be constrained by the unavailability of beds. Even in the initial mandated reduction in Washington State, special exemptions were made for those who had committed treason. As homeland security convictions become more frequent it will be harder to free those beds up. 


Sims, B., & O'Connell, J. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Assistance, Research, and Statistics. (1985). Early release: Prison overcrowding and public safety implications (NCJ 098130). Retrieved from US Department of Justice website: https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/publications/Abstract.aspx?id=98130

Bush, J. R. US Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Assistance Admin. (1982). Jail overcrowding: Guide to data collection and analysis (NCJ 087509). Retrieved from US Department of Justice website: https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/publications/abstract.aspx?ID=87509