IT'S THE SAME story right across the country. Jails and prisons are straining at the seams. Overcrowding in penal institutions has reached the point where judges are calling the conditions unconstitutional. In part the large prison population is due to a get-tough attitude in the courts and on parole boards. And mandatory prison sentences--even for some first offenders--have been fixed by voter referendum in some jurisdictions. At the same time, citizens are often reluctant to vote funds for prison construction, an effort that would cost billions of dollars nationwide. Jamming more prisoners into the same number of cells results in the kind of conditions the courts will no longer tolerate.
So it came to pass that officials at the Prince George's County jail counted heads last Sunday and realized that they would have to discharge some prisoners immediately if they were to be in compliance with a federal court order by the next morning. Judge Graydon McKee was dispatched to the jail's cafeteria Sunday afternoon where he began emergency bond reduction hearings for 44 inmates. Within hours, he released 27 men on personal recognizance, on reduced bail or in the custody of parents. Remember that we are talking about persons who have been arrested and charged with crime, but not prisoners who have already been convicted and sentenced.
The whole procedure was a healthy exercise in re- evaluation. Each of those released would not have been in jail if he had been able to meet a bond of $1,000 or less. None was charged with a felony. One man, for example, had been held 25 days awaiting trial on a charge of driving with a suspended license. Another had been in for two months on a shoplifting charge. This Sunday afternoon exercise should make judicial officers aware of the consequences of holding persons accused of minor crimes when the jail is already full to overflowing.
A more difficult problem arises in the case of prisons holding those already convicted of crimes and sentenced to fixed terms. What is to be done when the prison is full but the prisoners keep coming? The state of Michigan has dealt with the situation by passing the Prison Overcrowding Emergency Powers Act. Under the provisions of that law, whenever the prison population exceeds design capacity for 30 consecutive days, the sentences of all prisoners serving minimum sentences are reduced by 90 days. This makes a small percentage of all inmates eligible for immediate parole. Not all, of course, will be paroled, but those who are close to the completion of their minimum term and are thought to be good parole risks will be released, relieving overcrowding in an orderly and expeditious manner. Area corrections officials might study the Michigan experience and consider the need for such a procedure here. Prison overcrowding continues to plague our institutions; imaginative and successful solutions are a welcome model.