Can Alternative Sentencing Combat Prison Overcrowding?

A person behind barsIt’s no secret that the growing population of prisoners has become a hot topic in the United States in recent years. As incarceration rates have increased, so too has the uncertainty of the American people. With the United States housing half of the world’s incarcerated population, many argue that incarceration at such a scale is doing more harm than good — and not just for those who are locked up. A study from the Vera Institute of Justice found that each inmate costs taxpayers roughly $31,286 annually (excluding data from 10 states that did not participate in the study).

A quick Google search of “overcrowding in prisons” reveals a myriad of startling statistics and horrific headlines concerning incarceration in the United States. Among them are atrocious prison conditions and the roughly 15,000 children who are locked up for noncriminal parole violations, running away, truancy, and other minor offenses.

While many Americans are incarcerated, it’s important to recognize that many are also released from jail and prison every year. However, an enormous number of people (roughly 12 million) cycle through jails every year in a phenomenon known as “jail churn.” This cycle can be attributed to the 428,000-some people who have not yet been convicted and are awaiting trial, as well as the 293,000 individuals serving jail sentences for minor offenses. That’s a lot of people doing time for minor and even pending convictions.

So, what’s the solution here? Stop incarcerating people altogether? Obviously not. There’s definitely a place for incarceration, especially in the case of violent crimes such as murder, sexual battery and other severe offenses. But what about those who are imprisoned for minor drug offenses, DUI and similar crimes? Should they be locked up alongside those individuals who have done more damage to society?

Opinions vary, but some argue that it’s not necessary for minor offenders to face the same fate as hardened criminals. However, it is necessary that they do face some sort of consequences for their actions, and that’s where alternative sentencing can come into play.

What is Alternative Sentencing?

One method of combating the growing prison population is implementing alternative sentencing as a more widespread means of punishment for legal offenses. As its name suggests, alternative sentencing serves as an alternative to traditional incarceration. There are many types of alternative sentencing programs that are used throughout the United States, but depending on state and local jurisdiction they may not be available. 

Types of Alternative Sentencing Programs

There are several types of alternative sentencing programs — utilization varies on a state-by-state basis:

    • Work Crew Program – The offender is classified as an inmate at the local jail, yet he or she can go home at the end of a work shift. Duties are determined by the jail.
    • Home Detention – Also known as house arrest, the offender is confined to his or her home during the day. He or she may have to wear an ankle monitor bracelet, which sends a GPS signal to law enforcement to keep tabs on his or her location. Depending on how severe the offense, the offender may be permitted to leave the house at designated times during the day.
    • Work Release Program – If accepted, work release programs allow the offender to attend work, school and other approved activities at predetermined times during the day. The rest of the time must be spent in jail or in a drug or alcohol treatment program.
    • Work Search Program – An annex of work release, work search programs allow the offender to look for a job while incarcerated.
    • Multiple Offender DUI Program – Another extension of work release programs, a multiple offender DUI program (also known as MOP) is a three-step process that is designed to help those with drug or alcohol dependence. It may include work release and home detention/monitoring, depending on the circumstances.

        In order to be eligible for MOP, the offender must meet the following conditions:

    1. S/he has never been convicted of a felony
    2. S/he has demonstrated a need for substance abuse treatment
    3. S/he is willing to fully participate in treatment
    4. S/he is employed or will be employed in two weeks.
    5. S/he has a sentence of at least one year (this ensures there’s enough time to complete the program).
    6. S/he meets the requirements for the work release program.
    7. S/he has $280 to pay upfront for the first two weeks of work release and treatment.
    • Court-Ordered Community Service – The court designates a community service program for the offender. The offender must complete community service activities that are only determined and approved by the court — otherwise, the hours won’t count.

The Benefits of Alternative Sentencing

One of the obvious benefits of alternative sentencing is its potential to help control overcrowding in prisons and combat problems like lack of doctors and staff to attend to convicts. By sentencing those who have committed less severe offenses to an alternative sentence, we can reserve space for those more deserving of hard time.

Alternative sentences are also more economical than incarceration, which costs taxpayers approximately $39 billion per year. For this reason, many courts are in favor of alternative sentencing. Depending on the type of alternative sentence delivered (such as work crew programs or community service), justice systems may also view alternative sentencing as a form of “restorative justice” for the offender  — that is, a sort of repayment to the community for his or her actions.

Another benefit of alternative sentencing is its ability to give first-time offenders somewhat of a second chance. This means delivering a fair punishment that fits the crime, but with the prospect of a harsher punishment on the horizon to discourage repeat offenses. Some may view alternative sentences as more constructive alternatives to traditional incarceration — for example, many programs may allow the offender to attend school or work or search for employment while still receiving punishment. This notion makes alternative sentencing especially appealing to juveniles and minor offenders who could potentially be at risk for jail churn.

Is Alternative Sentencing Effective?

Of course, one of the main concerns about alternative sentencing is its effectiveness in reducing recidivism and prison overcrowding. A study analyzing Kansas’s alternative sentencing policy found that while alternative sentencing doesn’t necessarily reduce recidivism, it successfully frees up more space in prisons and has an overall positive impact on offenders.

The Takeaway

Alternative sentencing is by no means a replacement for traditional incarceration, but it can be a practical solution to combat overcrowding in prisons. By turning our focus to alternatives to incarceration, we can help salvage space in jails and prisons for those criminals who threaten our society while simultaneously discouraging minor offenders from committing repeat offenses.

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