The United States of America, with a history of military victories, economic prosperity, and the idea of freedom for all, has traditionally taken a tough stance against drug use and distribution. The war on drugs, beginning first with Nixon in 1967, then reinstated by Ronald Reagan in 1982, is responsible for the incarceration of thousands of criminals every year. Many of these criminals received harsher penalties than people who commit similar crimes in other countries. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the United States, originally developed as a deterrent, have actually increased the amount of prisoners currently housed in American facilities. Some non-violent crimes in other countries, such as possession of certain illegal substances, generally warrant a fine and probation, whereas similar crimes in America demand a prison sentence. Due the combination of the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing laws, American prisons are crowded far beyond their maximum capacity. With overcrowding, inmates do not receive proper rehabilitation, and a large percentage of convicts are arrested again for new crimes within three years of their release. The result, even more prison crowding, has serious side-effects.
With a large percentage of prisons considered to be filled above their recommended capacity, and staffed with below the minimum recommended amount of guards, inmate misconduct and violence is a significant threat. The number of inmate assaults is directly related to how overcrowded a prison is. Since understaffing is also a problem, it is very difficult for guards to quell these assaults and other violations, leading to unsafe conditions. In addition to safety hazards, a high incarceration rate means that prisons will have to spend more time and capital to provide for more inmates. The cost to house just one prisoner per year is surprisingly large, and only magnified by the enormous amount of inmates held in American prisons. These costs run directly to taxpayers across the country.
Policymakers must advocate for a change to the current system. Emphasis needs to be placed on rehabilitation, rather than on excessive punishment. By removing a percentage of non-violent offenders from prisons, and placing them in probation or parole programs instead, the federal, state, and local governments can save an enormous amount of resources. In order to do this, mandatory minimum laws must be repealed and judges must have more discretion to determine the appropriate consequences for each individual offender. The saved resources can then be used to create new social programs inside of prisons to help effectively rehabilitate inmates. If inmates choose to complete these courses, they will become eligible for shorter sentences. These programs will not only reduce the chance that an emancipated offender returns to prison, but will also aid in decreasing prison populations across the nation.