Prison Population Mandate
China’s overpopulation threatens the structure of their society. It is the leading driver of hunger, species extinction, and space overcrowding. In the United States, overpopulation in mainstream society is far from becoming a problem, but it is, and since the late 1980’s, has been a very intense issue in prison population, and today, California faces a mandate to reduce it by 10%. Historically, California has turned to short term solutions such as out-of-state and private prisons, and while they provide temporary relief, the root of the problem, and thus the solution, lies somewhere else; it lies in the judicial system. Ever since the War on Drugs took effect, incarcerations skyrocketed as more and more non-violent offenders face strict mandatory sentences which send a big percentage of the State’s population into the prison system. If that was not enough, after prisoners serve their sentences, and are released into society, they face extreme penalties and societal indifference which only increases the chances of being, yet again, imprisoned. In order to reduce prison population by 10% in California we must first recognize the cause of overcrowding, and then implement a series of measure to ensure a long term solution to mass incarcerations.
The root cause of prison overcrowding is the War on Drugs. In 1971, President Nixon initialized the “War” by increasing the presence of drug control agencies across the nation and pushing for measures such as mandatory sentencing. Nixon’ policies, however, did not reach full development, but they served as a foundation for President Ronald Reagan's true War on Drugs. Harsh sentencing for minor drug offenses, warrantless searches, and zero tolerance policies are just a few initiatives of the War on Drugs. This is the model California follows today, and it is what has been overpacking prisons since the 1980s. Between 1980 and 2005, the number of drug arrests more than tripled from 581,000 to 1,846,351 (Mauer, 3.) What is more disturbing, however, is that 81% of those arrests were for possession, and only 19% for sales (Mauer, 3.) These numbers should be reversed.
Even America’s perception of drugs before the Drug War was insignificant. According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “At the time he declared this new war, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation” (Alexander, 49.) Nowadays, drug related incidents stir American’s fears, but such fears are unfounded. They are a mere fabrication of mass media using the War on Drugs, a failed policy, as its structure. There is no need to be afraid. Just like there is no need to have such harsh punishments for minor, non-violent, drugs offenses which overcrowd prisons, drain resources from other public services, and, ultimately, violates the constitution by endangering the entire prison population with a health-care system that leaves much to be desired. According to Bob Egelko, reporter since 1970, the court ruled in 2009 that prison overflow is the main cause of shoddy health care that violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment (Egelko, 2.)
“Get tough” policies and restrictions marginalize ex-felons and repopulate the prison system. Once released from prison, ex-convicts find their stigma affecting their attempts to rejoin society. The justice system imposes a series of restrictions on their person even after they have fully served their sentences. These limitations include, but are not limited to, housing control, government assistance disqualification, second-strike felony charges, and employment discrimination. These are huge burdens, and it is no wonder that people labeled felons find their way back into prison. According to Michelle, about 30% of released prisoners were apprehended within six months of release, and within three years, nearly 68%