Prison Overcrowding: The Criminal Justice Policy Issue


The criminal justice system in the U.S. is essential because it keeps the citizens safe. The goal of these policies is to ensure justice for all people. The U.S.’s criminal justice policy does an excellent job by protecting citizens, convicting aggressors, and maintaining fair justice procedures in all states. However, the criminal justice policy has neglected convicted criminals. Some of the problems experienced by inmates in the U.S. include living in unhygienic conditions, facing high rates of violence, overcrowding resulting in gang activities, among other issues. The criminal justice policy issue of prison overcrowding, its history, goals, current state, and people’s views will be addressed in this paper.

Issue Description

There is a continuous increase in population in most U.S. prisons. However, the facilities and amenities to house the growing number remain almost constant. Currently, detention centers hold more people than they should. Olsen et al. (2018) suggest that congestion of prisons in the U.S. is caused by strict laws and policies against criminals over the last decade. Prison population increases cannot solely be attributed to changes in criminal justice laws, policies, and procedures (Limoncelli et al., 2019). The congestions in criminal justice procedures contribute most to the problem of overcrowded prisons and provide the best avenue of solving the menace.

Discussion of overcrowded detention centers is not new and is common in legal circles, research papers, political conversations, and ordinary street rhetoric. This discussion mainly leans on the problems that are associated with jails. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2018), there is an estimated 1,465,200 prisoners under state or federal jurisdiction. In the last decade, the capacities in national penal institutions, state prisons, private lock-up facilities, local jails, and U.S. military territories have been over-utilized. Studies show that overcrowded prisons can lead to unsanitary, violent conditions that are harmful to prisoners’ physical and mental well-being (MacDonald, 2018). Dangers of crowded prisons are posed not only to the inmates but also to the staff. These innocent citizens are exposed to various risks, including infections of contagious diseases like the COVID-19, physical assault, and increased stress and mental illnesses.

History of Criminal Justice Policy

Criminal justice policies have a long history that traces back to pre-historic times. Most cultured had different approaches, and the guidelines on handling criminal justice were constantly evolving. In Ancient Egypt, guards from noble families were used to protect caravans, goods, and people of importance. In the medieval east criminal justice policies were used to safeguard Islamic morality. The Chinese form of jurisdiction was called “prefecture”, where prefects appointed by the emperor were used as a criminal justice policy. The prefects functioned like the modern-day police and ensured law enforcement. Ancient Japan also practiced the prefecture system.

In the Songhai Empire, which dominated the north and western Africa in the 15th-century, criminal justice policies were maintained through Islamic law. In ancient Greece, during the dark ages of the 12th to 9th century B.C., criminal justice system was maintained by guards and the enslaved people who were used as watchdogs. The policing system as we know it came in force during the reign of the Roman Empire, and during this time, well-organized systems maintained criminal justice. In Europe during the Middle Ages, which began with the fall of the Roman Empire and ended with the age of discovery, justice was maintained by severe punishments. According to (Antonio & Fitzgerald, 2018), the punishments included whipping, execution, branding, and mutilation. However, towards the end of the Middle Ages, exile and banishment were the most common form of punishment.

The criminal justice policies adopted by colonial America were similar to those of the European masters. Most prevalent was the common law of England, in which crimes were categorized into either felony or misdemeanor. Misdemeanors were minor crimes that were not punishable, while felonies were severe crimes that deserved prosecution before a jury. County judges, magistrates, and colonial courts started during Colonial American times. The legal process was different from today’s and involved interrogations at judges’ homes. Punishments involved heavy shaming, whipping, or execution. Imprisonment was a rare form of punishment during colonial America. There were a few jails to hold people awaiting trials, and these jails were later transformed into county jails. State prisons in the U.S. came into existence in the 19th century.

Goals of the Policy

Criminal justice policies are formulated to change how crime is processed in the criminal justice system. The criminal justice department first focuses on preventing crimes before occurring. The guidelines also seek to protect the public resource’s human or material components. Another modern goal of the criminal justice policies is to support victims of crimes. The criminal justice also strives to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for what they do. Finally, the justice department seeks to ensure that offenders return to society as law-abiding citizens through its policies.

Comparing the goals set out in the policies with the things happening in the prisons around the nation shows the department has neglected the part about the inmates. Most people know little about the extent or nature of the crime, legal statutes or procedures, sentencing reforms, or the administration of punishment (Pickett, 2019). Among the goals included in the policies, education of members of not included and based on the scant knowledge members of the public have it should. To make the public knowledgeable on the guidelines, the governments should first seek to ensure that educators like teachers are aware of them. Then the education curriculum should put more emphasis on criminal justice systems.

Current Implementations of the Policy

The currently implemented criminal justice policies are set to convict and imprison wrongdoers as quickly as possible and for an extended period. The states are presently known to hand longer sentences than due, resulting in overcrowding in prisons. Only recently did a federal court order states to reduce the inmate population to protect the inmates regarding the constitutional rights (Olsen et al., 2018). Juvenile justice is formed around putting delinquents behind bars. The current drug legislation rules seek to put as many illegal drug users in prison rather than seeking rehabilitations. The existing gender-based violence also doesn’t have much on prevention, but there are many brutal punishments. These policies have been a great contributor to prison overcrowding than increased crime rates. The procedures are also not extensive and precise in maintaining the rights of those imprisoned.

Views of the Policy

While some Americans are aware of the current state of the criminal justice policies, the majority of them believe controversies. The average American thinks crime is constantly increasing and underestimates imprisonment rates for convicted criminals (Pickett, 2019). However, experts in the field seem to agree that the criminal justice system is quick to punish. The bleak picture of public opinion held by many criminologists today mirrors one that prevailed in other fields before being discredited at the end of the last century (Pickett, 2019). Criminologists argue crime is falling, but the rate of convictions and imprisonments is increasing.

Contemporary Issues

As of January 2022, the criminal justice departments are focused on addressing critical criminal justice issues. One is the increasing homicide cases, and the leaders urge more arrests to be made. More arrests mean more members in detention facilities, an issue the department is keen to address. The board is also keen on bipartisan state reforms with legislation scheduled for 2023. The system also seeks to abolish juvenile taxes and fines, but detention remains. The policy is also keen on establishing the prison and jail innovation lab (PJIL) to push for humane treatment for those in custody. There is also an existing move that will free prisons by not imprisoning those who disobey probations but by handling stricter punishments.


There was a time when it seemed that having wrongdoers serve long prison sentences was a win for the criminal justice system. That time is now past, and the primary goal of criminal justice policies is to ensure justice for all. The convicted should not have to go through inhumane treatment in prison as those are correctional centers rather than punishment zones. New criminal justice policies need to be formulated to cater to the better welfare of those in prison. More funding needs to be sought and more extensive facilities built to decongest the prisons.


Antonio, P.S, & Fitzgerald, C. (2018). A history of law in Europe: From the early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press.

Baranyi, G., Cassidy, M., Fazel, S., Priebe, S., & Mundt, A. P. (2018). Prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder in prisoners. Epidemiologic Reviews, 40(1), 134–145. Web.

Limoncelli, K. E., Mellow, J., & Na, C. (2019). Determinants of intercountry prison incarceration rates and overcrowding in Latin America and the Caribbean. International Criminal Justice Review, 105756771983053. Web.

MacDonald, M. (2018). Overcrowding and its impact on prison conditions and health. International Journal of Prisoner Health, 14(2), 65–68. Web.

Olsen, C., Štancel, F., Butoyi, H., Riebe-Ehlert, T. F., Thomsen, J. K., & Dickheiwer, R. (2018). The Overcrowding of Prisons in the United States of America (dissertation).

Pickett, J. T. (2019). Public opinion and criminal justice policy: Theory and research. Annual Review of Criminology, 2(1), 405–428. Web.

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