Opinion

Four ways to relieve overcrowded prisons

America’s  addiction to incarceration as a curb on crime must end. The evidence is staggering. Prison overcrowding is ubiquitous and shows few signs of abating: Between 1970 and 2005, the nation’s inmate population grew by 700 percent.

In California, 54 prisoners may share a single toilet and 200 prisoners may live in a single gymnasium. As a result, the Supreme Court ruled in May 2011 that California prisons were in violation of the Eighth Amendment and its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Here, attorney Arjun Sethi offers four solutions to improve the overcrowded US prison system.

3. Limit the use of pre-trial detention

Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s prison population haven’t been convicted of a crime. They are awaiting trial. Many are arrested for low-risk offenses such as disturbing the peace or traffic violations, and they languish in jail because they can’t afford bail. Releasing these individuals would not jeopardize public safety and would reduce overcrowding and public defender caseloads. 

America’s overreliance on incarceration has also impeded the rights of criminal defendants. The Sixth Amendment guarantees legal representation to individuals charged with a crime. Yet because of the crushing volume of cases, indigent defense programs often suffer from inadequate staffing, funding, and supervision.

In Kentucky, a public defender may represent more than 450 clients in a single year. In Miami, Florida, the annual caseload is nearly 500 felonies and 2,225 misdemeanors. The consequences include wrongful incarceration, wrongful convictions, and guilty pleas when meritorious defenses are otherwise available.

Just this year, Kentucky terminated pre-trial detention for numerous drug offenses and mandated citations rather than arrests for certain misdemeanors. 

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