In a 1999 study of the factors causing the prison population to expand, Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie‐Mellon University, and Allen Beck, a prison specialist at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, estimate that 40 percent of the growth is due to increases in prison admissions and 60 percent is attributable to longer prison sentences served by inmates. The researchers claim the increase in commitments to prison is because of tougher attitudes toward criminals by both prosecutors and judges. The longer time served, they say, is caused by tougher sentencing laws, longer sentences, and more reluctance by parole boards to grant early release.
An additional factor driving both increases in prison admissions and increases in the lengths of sentences is the drug war. Drug offenses are accounting for the greatest share of the increase—30 percent of the new commitments to state prisons. Then, too, drug offenders serve long terms because many of them are sentenced under get‐tough antidrug laws. Legislation requiring extremely long sentences for drug crimes is a political phenomenon of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Few politicians have been willing to challenge the “get tough on drug crime” attitudes or to look at the economic and human consequences of long sentences.
A major consequence of the tremendous explosion in the prison population is prison overcrowding. Overcrowding became the norm in America's prisons in the 1990s. At the start of 1995, 39 states were under court orders to correct overcrowding and/or unconstitutional conditions. The federal prison system was 26 percent over its rated capacity in 1995. In many prisons, inmates are double‐bunked in small cells designed for one person. Others sleep in dormitories, tents, or trailers. Overcrowding contributes to many problems, including the spread of diseases (such as tuberculosis), prison violence, prisoner lawsuits, and the shortage of resources inside prisons.
The federal and state governments have responded to this problem by building more prisons, stretching the capacity of existing facilities, releasing some inmates early, holding some inmates in local jails, expanding probation and parole caseloads, and broadening the range of criminal sanctions beyond the traditional sentences of prison or probation.
Institutional programs include medical services, religious programs, education programs, recreation, prison labor and industry, work release (which involves releasing inmates to work in the community during the day and returning them to prison at night), and rehabilitation (for example, group therapy that is used to address problems of specific types of offenders, such as sex offenders and drug abusers).
In evaluating prison programs, the principle of less eligibility comes into play. The public believes inmates should never enjoy a higher standard of living behind bars than free citizens experience outside prison. Based on this principle, many citizens think inmates should be denied access to certain forms of recreation, such as weights, television, and movies. Correctional officers and prison administrators counter by arguing that such activities keep prisoners busy and out of trouble. Rehabilitation programs have aroused even more criticism than recreation programs. Results of evaluations of rehabilitation programs are mixed: some programs work for individual offenders, but, in general, there is no clear‐cut evidence that rehabilitation reduces recidivism.
Supervised release from prison before an inmate serves a full sentence is called parole. Parole officers working for parole agencies provide supervision and counseling to parolees. Another agency, a parole board, determines whether inmates should be granted parole and establishes conditions that each parolee must abide by. If a parolee violates any of these conditions or commits a new crime, the parole board can revoke parole and reincarcerate the offender.
The abolishment of parole
By 1999, 15 states and the federal government had taken the politically popular step of abolishing parole boards, a vestige of what some consider as a failed system of rehabilitation. The parole system, an invention of the nineteenth century, consists of two parts: parole boards that decide when to release prisoners and parole officers who supervise convicts after they serve time in prison. Politicians advocating the elimination of parole have witnessed disappointing results. Three states have had to reinstate parole boards after eliminating them because rising prison populations forced them to jeopardize public safety by releasing many offenders early. Court orders requiring states to alleviate prison crowding are one way prisoners are released early. Another way inmates gain early release is by accumulating extensive good‐time credits. The argument against eliminating parole boards is that, without parole, an inmate's release becomes automatic once the offender serves a portion of a sentence minus good time. Under such circumstances it is more difficult for correctional authorities to keep dangerous offenders behind bars.