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Prison Crowding and How Community Service Can Help

A significant problem in the realm of corrections throughout the world is that of prison overcrowding. Since the development of the first state prisons, correctional facilities have faced the problem of having too many prisoners for the available cell space. This problem stems from the long-standing idea that incarceration is the best punishment, not just for high-risk offenders, but for all offenders.

For years, criminal justice systems have relied upon incarceration to keep offenders off the streets.  Through this method the prisons continue to reach capacity, and rather than trying alternative methods that alleviate the number of offenders being incarcerated, the corrections system continues to build and expand the size and number of prison spaces.

Unfortunately, this method is not successful and adds stress to the system.  Overcrowding not only creates inhumane conditions for the prisoners, it increases wear on the facility, budgetary problems, prisoner and staff tension levels, as well as causes an inability to meet service and program standards.  The tension due to overcrowding not only occurs within the prisons, but throughout the criminal justice system.  Judges and other court officials struggle with sentencing high-risk offenders when overcrowding causes constraint on prison space, while prosecutors struggle with their day to day work because the high numbers of offenders are not being processed quickly and efficiently enough.

With the complications of overcrowding it is possible that restorative justice methods would be extremely beneficial.  Restorative justice principles do not focus on incarceration, but look to other methods that emphasize restoration for the victim and community, while also making sure the offender is appropriately punished.  Community service is an excellent example.  When applied properly, community service not only has the potential to significantly effect the reduction in prison populations, it also has components that prevent future offending as well as benefit victims and the community.

Some components that were previously mentioned as best practices can also be listed as helpful for properly applying community service in terms of prison overcrowding.  Those components include, but are not limited to, the following:

• The service provided should maximize the benefits for all parties.
• Incorporating restorative justice values creates a more productive atmosphere.
• The tasks should be worthwhile and should provide the offenders with job and social skills that will help them reintegrate upon release.
• The service should be acknowledged by the local community.
• The program should include restorative values that promote the offender’s change in identity from criminal to that of an upstanding citizen.

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