OVERCROWDED prisons are an ever more prominent feature of the American landscape. The General Accounting Office (GAO) has reported that inmates in federal prisons number 48,017, up from 24,162 in 1980. Federal and state penitentiaries have a combined inmate population of 673,565, double that of 10 years ago. The GAO also notes that only 19 percent of federal prisoners are in for violent crimes, that it costs $51,340 a bed to enlarge the system, and that 40 percent of new inmates have a moderate to serious drug-abuse problem.
Increased prosecution for drug sales and use has contributed to the burgeoning prison population. So has mandatory incarceration for a wider range of offenses. So has the declining popularity of parole as public outcry over crime has grown. Demographic trends play a part, too, particularly the large proportion of black and Hispanic American men aged 18 to 34.
Increasingly, federal judges have ordered the release of inmates when crowding in prisons or jails becomes extreme. Facilities in 40 states are under such court scrutiny. Sometimes court-appointed masters assume management of prisons.
Critics see this as unwarranted judicial intervention and argue that conditions are often not as bad as judges conclude. And overcrowding, in itself, may not mean intolerable conditions. Experts point to the California Men's Colony at San Luis Obispo as an example of a overflowing maximum-security facility that is nonetheless well run and humane. Good management is the key, they say, and a clear danger from overcrowding is that it gives poor prison administrators a ready excuse for their failures.
Court-ordered release from prison is a boon to administrators. But it's no favor to the public. Violence-prone inmates shouldn't be prematurely released under any circumstances. But statistics indicate that even less dangerous criminals, released early, are likely to commit new offenses and simply return to the penal system. That raises the perennial question of rehabilitation.
Can simply increasing the space for convicts - as promised by the Bush administration's $1.4 billion program to expand federal prisons - offer any hope of turning people from crime?
Still, humanitarian and practical problems springing from overcrowding demand a response to the space shortage. In addition to new construction, use of excess military bases and inexpensive prefab housing are avenues worth exploring.
As government funds flow toward the prison dilemma, the goal of rehabilitation shouldn't be crowded out. Education, job training, and drug treatment have to get their share of the dollars going into the state and federal prison systems.
Beyond that, citizens at the community and neighborhood levels have to do what they can to strengthen the institutions - families, schools, churches - that can best point young men and women away from crime.