Guest Blog Highlight: Mountainside Treatment

By Staff

Overcrowded Prisons for Drug Violations: A Crisis in the United States
The issue of the war on drugs and overcrowded prisons in the United States is a problem of
epidemic proportions. With an incarceration rate that is five to ten times higher than other
Wwestern democracies, the United States holds less than five percent of the world’s population
but accounts for a staggering one quarter of the global prison population.
The number of people held in prisons and jails in the United States has more than quadrupled
in the past 40 years, surpassing 2.3 million
according to the American Civil Liberties Union. This explosive growth in the prison population has led to severe overcrowding, with prisoners sleeping in gyms and hallways or being crammed into cells designed for far fewer inmates.
Read on to learn more about the main causes of overcrowding and overuse of imprisonment in
the United States, highlighting the role of the “war on drugs” and mandatory minimum
sentencing laws. You will also learn about the barriers to re-entry and the collateral
consequences of criminal convictions, and best practices from the United States in sentencing
reform and alternatives to incarceration to address the crisis of drug crimes and overcrowded

The “War on Drugs” and Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws
The explosive growth in the U.S. prison population can be attributed to a number of factors, but
one of the main drivers has been the “war on drugs” and the implementation of mandatory
minimum sentencing laws (Marshall Project).

Beginning in the mid-1970s, lawmakers around the country enacted
harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws in response to concerns about drug abuse and
drug-related crime. These laws require automatic prison terms for those convicted of certain
federal and state crimes, regardless of individual circumstances or factors meriting leniency. As
a result, individuals convicted of nonviolent drug offenses can receive sentences that are
disproportionate to the severity of their crimes.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have contributed significantly to the
overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in the prison population, as
they have been disproportionately targeted and convicted for drug offenses.

Doreen Pinkerton, Mountainside Treatment

“Three Strikes” and Other Habitual Offender Laws
In addition to the “war on drugs” and mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the
implementation of three-strikes and other habitual offender laws has also played a significant
role in the overcrowding of prisons in the United States. These laws were enacted in response
to public outcry about violent crime and were intended to prevent individuals with prior
criminal convictions from committing future crimes.
However, these laws have resulted in lengthy sentences, including life imprisonment without
parole, for individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses. The application of these laws is often
disproportionate and can result in extreme sentences for minor offenses. For example,
individuals have been sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent offenses such as stealing
small amounts of money or possessing small quantities of drugs. The use of “three strikes” and
habitual offender laws has not only contributed to the overcrowding of prisons due to drugs,
but has also raised concerns about fairness and proportionality in sentencing.

Changes to Parole Laws and Other Limitations on Release
In addition to the implementation of harsh sentencing laws, changes to parole laws and other
limitations on release have also contributed to the overcrowding of prisons in the United
States. Many states have abolished parole or imposed strict limits on parole eligibility, requiring
individuals to serve a significant portion of their sentences before being considered for release.
These changes have reduced the number of individuals being released from prison and have
increased the length of time individuals spend incarcerated. The elimination of meaningful
parole consideration and the limited availability of earned time credits for good behavior or
completion of education and treatment programs have further restricted opportunities for
release. These restrictions on release have not only contributed to overcrowding but have also
hindered rehabilitation and reintegration efforts, making it more difficult for individuals to
successfully re-enter society after serving their sentences.

Barriers to Re-entry and Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions
The challenges faced by individuals leaving prison extend beyond the walls of the correctional
facility. Re-entry into society can be a formidable challenge, particularly for individuals with a
criminal record. The collateral consequences of a criminal conviction, such as limited access to
housing, employment, and educational opportunities, can create significant barriers to
successful reintegration. These barriers can increase the likelihood of recidivism and contribute
to the cycle of incarceration. The overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in the
criminal justice system exacerbates these challenges, as individuals from these communities are
disproportionately affected by the collateral consequences of criminal convictions. Removing
these barriers and providing support and resources for individuals re-entering society is
essential for reducing recidivism and promoting successful reintegration.
Best Practices: Sentencing Reform and Alternatives to Incarceration

Recognizing the unsustainability of America’s addiction to incarceration, legislators across the
United States have begun to implement reforms aimed at reducing prison populations and
addressing issues of overcrowding. These reforms include:
 -sentencing reform
 -Alternatives to incarceration
 -Promotion of rehabilitation
 -Reintegration programs
States such as New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and California have successfully reduced their
prison populations through measures such as reducing felony arrests, implementing non-prison
sentences, and expanding parole eligibility. Other states have enacted laws mandating drug
treatment instead of prison for non-violent drug offenders and investing in programs aimed at
reducing parole and probation revocations. These reforms have not only reduced prison
populations but have also resulted in lower crime rates and significant cost savings. By focusing
on evidence-based practices and adopting a more holistic approach to criminal justice, these
states have demonstrated that it is possible to reduce overcrowding and promote successful
rehabilitation and reintegration.

U.N. Treaty Body and Human Rights Council Recommendations
International human rights bodies, such as the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the U.N.
Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, have made recommendations to the
United States to address issues of overcrowding and overuse of imprisonment. These
recommendations include eliminating racial disparities in the criminal justice system,
strengthening alternatives to incarceration, distinguishing between individuals who pose
threats to public safety and those who are ready for re-entry, and conducting regular
evaluations of the criminal justice system. These recommendations highlight the need for
comprehensive reforms that address the root causes of overcrowding and ensure that the
criminal justice system operates in line with international human rights standards.
The issue of overcrowded prisons in the United States is a complex problem that requires
comprehensive and evidence-based solutions. The implementation of harsh sentencing laws,
such as mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws, has contributed significantly to the
overuse of imprisonment and the overcrowding of prisons. Changes to parole laws and
limitations on release have further exacerbated the problem. Addressing these issues will
require a multi-faceted approach that includes sentencing reform, alternatives to incarceration,
and support for individuals re-entering society. By adopting best practices and implementing
the recommendations of international human rights bodies, the United States can begin to
address the crisis of overcrowded prisons and promote a more fair and effective criminal justice

Written by Doreen Pinkerton of Mountainside Treatment Centers

Leave a Comment