sentencing laws and Prison Overcrowding

In America, sentencing laws were created to aid states and state agencies in deciding what punishment would be most appropriate and correct for a particular crime. The statutes' resulting policies, however, appear to have an immediate effect on the prison population. This essay explores whether or not sentencing guidelines add to jail overcrowding.

The Impact of Sentencing Laws on Prison Population

According to a 2012 FBI estimate, there were about 2.3 million adult prisoners in American prisons. The number of prisoners in state prisons increased between 2011 and 2016, presenting social and health challenges to the nation's most reputable prison system. In Illinois, for example, there has been a significant increase in the number of inmates despite the limited holding capacity of the prison system. In 2012, the number of incarcerated inmates in Illinois grew to about 49,000, surpassing the prison's capacity of 33,000 convicts (FBI Releases 2011 Crime Statistics, 2012). Similar trends have been observed in California's main prisons. In the case of Brown v. Plata, for instance, the U.S Supreme Court unanimously held that the kind of overcrowding in Californian prisons violated the "Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments" considering the fact that it exposed convict to cruel and unusual punishment. Further pieces of evidence reveal that the number of prisoners in Lowa and Connecticut prisons has risen on average by close to 25% above the carrying capacity.

The Relationship Between Sentencing Guidelines and Inmate Population

Marvell (1994) argued that there is a close relationship between sentencing guidelines and the number of inmates. According to the researcher, legislators have responded to the growing concerns and trends in criminal justice by establishing sentencing guidelines that permit longer sentences and compulsory minimum condemnations for many crimes and prisoners. Following such developments, the U.S prison populations have grown by over 400 percent since 1968 (Marvell, 1994). The fact of the matter is that there is an increase in crime rate and day-by-day, more people get convicted. However, policymakers have not been able to strike a balance between the number of individuals leaving prisons and those who are incarcerated on day basis.

The Influence of Sentencing Guidelines on Incarceration Rates

Sentencing guidelines affect the development of citizen ideology, which seems to have greater influence on incarceration and admission rates across American States. Sorensen and Stemen (2002) states that the three strike sentencing procedures including "determinate sentencing," "mandatory sentencing," and "truth-in-sentencing laws" have increased the number of people arrested for drug-related offenses. The researchers argue that state policy regulators were quick to establish and adopt these sentencing guidelines without considering the negative impacts on prison population. Although there are other factors that independently affect the number of convicts in the U.S. jails, recent incarceration and high admission rates closely relate to procedures and policies developed from sentencing laws.

An Opposing View on Sentencing Guidelines and Prison Population

One contrary opinion to the issue of sentencing guidelines was raised by Reitz (2005). According to the researcher, several forces play significant roles in driving the U.S. confinement growth. Factors such as re-incarceration due to multiple offenses, engaging in new crimes outlined in the penal code, and imprisonment for failure to complete civic duties have also led to the increase in prison population. Although there is sense in Reitz's argument, his opinion about a weak relationship between sentencing guidelines and prison population seems to contradict the views of early researchers including Alschuler (1991) who indicated that the only way to reduce the prison population is by advocating for less policy aggregation. This would mean avoiding the failures of the three fundamental sentencing guidelines.


In conclusion, the measures and actions developed from sentencing guidelines including "determinate sentencing," "mandatory sentencing," and "truth-in-sentencing laws" seem to have direct impacts on the prison population.



Alschuler, A. W. (1991). The failure of sentencing guidelines: A plea for less aggregation. University of Chicago Law Review, 58, 901-944.

Marvell, T. B. (1994). Sentencing Guidelines and Prison Population Grouth. J. Crim. L. & Criminology, 85, 696.

Reitz, K. R. (2005). Don't blame determinacy: US incarceration growth has been driven by other forces. Tex. L. Rev., 84, 1787.

Sorensen, J., & Stemen, D. (2002). The effect of state sentencing policies on incarceration rates. NCCD news, 48(3), 456-475.

FBI Releases 2011 Crime Statistics. (2012, October 29). Retrieved December 22, 2017, from

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