Reducing Prison Overpopulation and Racial Disparities in Prisons by Reducing Non-Violent Drug Incarcerations

By Will Aldana

Problem Statement – Prison Overpopulation’s Many Ramifications

Prison overpopulation, in the history of the United States, is a relatively new issue. With the recent explosion in convictions that lead to incarcerations, the number of new prisoners and detainees far exceeds the possible capacity of the existing prisons. Because of this, the federal and state prison systems have become so overcrowded that the United States has had to outsource the problem to private prisons. The sheer number of prisoners and incarcerations perpetuates the problem of the racial disparities in the prison system that cause people of color to be more frequently the victims of the harsh and cruel realities of an overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded prison system. Additionally, from a fiscal and practical perspective, the large number of incarcerations increases the tax burden that partially funds the prison system. Although there are many remedies that could solve parts of the issues of racial disparity, and underfunding and understaffing due to overpopulation, all of these issues would be greatly benefitted by a reduction of incarcerations.

Background – The Prison Boom and Consequences of Overpopulated Prisons

The United States experienced its first modern prison boom in the Reagan-era “war on drugs” that has disproportionately incarcerated black and brown people since its inception. The push for more convictions naturally led to more incarcerations at a rate that the system itself was not prepared for. The prison population was stagnant for most of the 20th century, slowly growing but hovering around half a million detainees, until the late 1970s when there was a sharp uptick in the growth that increased steadily to where the population sits today, at around 2.3 million. That number reflects a 500% increase in the prison population over the last 40 years. Currently, with 2.3 million incarcerated individuals, the United States is filling 103.9% occupancy of its available space in all prisons but most federal prisons are operating 40% above maximum capacity (Prison Policy Initiative). This massive overcrowding of prisons has serious consequences for almost every party involved.

The first issue perpetuated by the overpopulation of the prison system is the impact on people of color. While the white population makes up about 64% of the total population in the United States, the white population in the prison system only accounts for 39% of the detainees. Furthermore, the total population of the United States is roughly 13% black while the prison system is 40% black. This means that while there are almost 5 times as many white people as black people in the United States, there are still more black people than white people in the prisons. In addition, Latinos comprise about 16% of the total United States population but about 19% percent of the prison population. Based on this data, people of color are not only affected by the prison system as a whole at disproportionate rates, but they are also affected by the consequences of overcrowding at disproportionate rates.

A prison system at or below maximum capacity is an expensive business. An overcrowded prison system is a huge burden on the federal and state government budgets as well as the average taxpayer. The budget every year for the prison system and all its parts are 182 billion dollars yearly with 80 billion of those dollars going directly to the correction facilities. To put this into perspective in conjunction with overpopulation, the spending on prisons has nearly tripled since the 1970s. However this massive spike in the annual budget is not due to renovations, it is due to the mass incarceration that has overwhelmed the prison system. And although the budget stands at 182 billion dollars, as of 2016 the direct cost of the prison system is about 295.6 billion dollars amounting to 134,400 dollars per inmate. This devastatingly high number creates big dents in the ability of the federal and state governments to properly fund other needs as well as greatly impacting the costs to taxpayers. Despite these immense costs and budgets, due to the overcrowding, somehow, the prison system finds itself understaffed and underfunded.

Because of the number of prisoners in the system, it would be nearly impossible for the system to be adequately staffed and properly funded. As of 2020, all 50 states reported some degree of understaffing in their prisons and much of that understaffing is due to an insufficient budget to hire the staff needed to support such a large population. Although it may seem obvious, one of the biggest consequences of overcrowding is a lack of space. In most prisons, there are no mandatory minimum space requirements and this can create a lack of privacy that is extremely detrimental to the mental health of prisoners. The lack of space and privacy also creates a unique challenge as we navigate an airborne deadly virus, COVID-19. Both the large number of people in a confined area and the impossibility of social distance make prevention and containment of COVID-19 a real challenge for overpopulated prisons. It has also been shown that overcrowding in prisons can lead to more prisoner crime within the prison itself. According to Gerald Gaes, “overcrowding has been proposed as the underlying cause of rapes, riots, hostage taking and assaults.” (Gaes, 97). Gaes continues to describe how a lack of staff, or an under-trained staff, can face great difficulties trying to neutralize tensions and violence that are often exacerbated by the effects of overpopulation. All of the problems that have been outlined could find their solution in a reduction in the incarceration rate, specifically for non-violent drug offenders.

Proposed Solution – Reduce Incarceration for Non-Violent Drug Offenses

The overpopulation of prisons greatly perpetuates the existing problems of racial disparities and racism, prison mental health and violence, and creates new problems such as large and debilitating budgets, lack of space and privacy, and understaffing. Although the answer may seem intuitive, all of these issues, in varying degrees, could be greatly benefitted by a general reduction of incarcerations. Even if the conviction rates remained stagnant, reducing the incarceration rate would diminish the disproportionate impact of the prison system on people of color, give more space for detainees, and allow the staff to have a manageable number of inmates. One way to accomplish this is to lower the rate of incarcerations for non-violent drug-related offenses. 

Once it has been identified that there must be a reduction in the incarceration rate to solve the issues caused by overpopulation, the question becomes who does this apply to and what are the alternatives to incarceration. One possibility as a place to reduce incarcerations is non-violent drug-related offenses. As it currently stands, one out of every five prisoners is being incarcerated for a drug-related offense. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the largest percentage of incarcerations are due to drug-related offenses at 49.5%. To put this number into perspective, the next highest cause of incarceration is weapons at 16.3% of the total prison population. Should the rate of incarceration for these offenses drop in any way, the prison system would experience large reductions in the total population.

Federal Prisons at a Crossroads | The Sentencing Project

Figure I: Federal Prison Population by Offense

Source: Carson, E. A. & Anderson, E. (2016). Prisoners in 2015. United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Because a drop in incarcerations for non-violent drug offenders is required, it is important to identify alternatives to incarceration for these offenders. Crimes such as drug possession offenses or selling a banned substance in a low quantity are often the product of addiction, disease, or mental illness and because of this incarceration tends to exacerbate the problem rather than rehabilitate the problem. The PEW Research Center concluded that there is no correlation between a state’s drug incarceration rate and a state’s drug problem. The solution then comes from countries such as Norway that often choose rehabilitation programs over-incarceration. Norway, based on their programs that seek to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate, has experienced a drop in the recidivism rate to 20%. In contrast, the United States sees two out of every three former prisoners arrested within three years of their release and a 50% recidivism rate ( Incorporating rehabilitation programs as alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders would significantly reduce recidivism while also tackling some of the problems created by the massive overpopulation of prisons. This solution of reducing the incarceration rate for drug-related or non-violent offenses would make a significant impact on the disproportionate rates of incarceration for people of color. The racialization of the “war on drugs” has decimated minority communities while incarcerating black people for drug-related crimes at massively higher rates. Nearly half of all imprisonments are due to drug-related offenses and black individuals comprise 62.7% of these incarcerations. By creating an alternative to incarceration for drug-related offenses, the racial disparities in the prison system will be significantly relieved.

It would be unreasonable to suggest that there is a total elimination of drug-related incarcerations while there are strict drug laws that govern the country. However, there are varying degrees of guilt within drug incarcerations that, because of biased sentencing and racialized statutes, imprison people of color at higher rates. For example, there are a huge number of incarcerations for offenses such as possession or intent to sell in low quantities. These non-violent offenses often get similar sentencing as far more severe crimes due to the residual practices and habits from the “war-on-drugs”. Because people of color make up such a large portion of these incarcerations, by reducing the rate of incarceration there would be a great impact on the racial disparities in the prison system. In addition, because drug-related offenses account for by far the largest percent of incarcerations, reducing the incarceration for these offenses would greatly decrease the issue of overpopulation.

Overpopulation, in many ways, is the product of increased incarcerations from the “war on drugs”. Overpopulation exacerbates the issues such as racial disparity in the prison system, as well as mental health of the prisoners, and the understaffing of prisons. In addition, it creates new problems such as lack of space in prisons, and undue and unreasonable costs to taxpayers and the government. Although, much more intensive and extraordinary reforms are needed in order to solve all of the issues that the prison system faces, reducing the rate of incarceration for non-violent and drug-related offenses and choosing or creating rehabilitation programs as alternatives would alleviate the overpopulation of prisons and the numerous problems that it creates.


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