Are Alcohol Offenders Overcrowding Your Jails and Prisons?


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Bursting at the Seams

The United States imprisons significantly more people than any other nation in the world. In fact, the Pew Center on the States reported in 2008 that an astounding one in every 100 adults in the U.S. now lives behind bars!

Because we’ve been trying to “incarcerate our way” out of crime for so long, federal and state prisons and county jails are experiencing near-crisis levels of overcrowding. At the same time, operating budgets have been severely cut, as has funding to build new facilities. And over the next two years, researchers predict the situation will get even worse.

Based on current projections, by 2011 the U.S. prison population will increase by 13% – which is triple the growth of the entire population as a whole – to more than 1.7 million . Supporting that increase in incarcerated people will cost American taxpayers and local/state budgets an estimated $27.5 billion. At that time, another 4 million people will also be on probation or parole.

The net effect is that states, counties, courts, sheriffs, and administrators are actively looking for ways to:

  • Trim incarcerated populations
  • Remain fiscally solvent
  • Continue protecting public safety

Learn More about jail and prison overcrowding statistics.

Driving Forces

At the heart of the jail overcrowding problem is the combination of rising crime rates with a growing national population. Research also shows that as the national economy declines, crime rates and the incidence of alcohol-related crime also increase.

Other key factors that affect jail and prison overcrowding are:

Alcohol and Crime

From a criminal justice standpoint, alcohol offenders are overwhelming our system and contributing to unwieldy court dockets, burdensome caseloads, and overcrowded jails and prisons. Data gathered from courts shows that alcohol plays a significant role as a contributing factor in the crimes that put a large percentage of the prison population behind bars.

Research has found that using incarceration as a sanction for alcohol offenders is not only expensive, but is minimally effective because it doesn’t help them address the core of their problem – alcohol addiction. For many of these offenders, they serve their time behind bars but once they return to their old environments with the same drinking triggers, a high percentage of them recidivate if their addiction hasn’t been treated and resolved. For example, the number of people sentenced to substance abuse or mental health programs outside of jail dropped 25% between 2005 and 2006.1

These problems are exacerbated by the fact that there are no national standards for:

  • Identifying offenders with alcohol misuse issues (screening, assessment, and evaluation tools and programs)
  • Sanctioning alcohol offenders for criminal activity
  • Providing them with the treatment they need to make better decisions
  • Monitoring them to ensure rehabilitation

Learn more about how alcohol is contributing to the rise in jail populations. View statistics »

1Jailing Communities (2008), Justice Policy Institute