A task force of experts commissioned by Congress called for a makeover of the federal prison system, from the sentencing of defendants to the treatment of inmates once they get out, wrote Ted Gest for The Crime Report.
The Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, completing a year-long study, contended its recommendations would result in safely dropping the number of federal inmates by 60,000, and save $5 billion.
The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) now runs the nation's largest prison system, with 196,352 inmates, of whom about 161,000 were in federal facilities as of last week and the rest in other lockups. The prisons overall are occupied far above their official capacity, making them dangerous to inmates and corrections personnel alike.
The federal prison population has grown eight-fold since 1980, reaching 220,000 in 2013 before it began to decline recently, partly because the U.S. Sentencing Commissioned has reduced the terms of many prisoners serving long sentences for drug crime. About 6,000 such inmates were released late last year.
With almost 40,000 employees, it costs $7.5 billion annually to run federal prisons, more than one-fourth of the U.S. Justice Department's budget, which has caused concern among members of Congress who watch government spending. Former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chaired the subcommittee that helps set the DOJ budget, proposed the panel, which is named for the late aide to President Richard Nixon who became a prison reformer after his own stint as an inmate during the Watergate scandal.
The Colson panel made six main recommendations to deal with what it criticized as a "one size fits all" system:
The federal system should reserve prison beds for those convicted of the most serious federal crimes. This would mean revisiting mandatory minimum drug sentences, which the task force called the "primary driver of BOP overcrowding and unsustainable growth." The task force would also reduce mandatory minimums for gun crimes.
BOP should "promote a culture of safety and rehabilitation and ensure that programming is allocated in accordance with individual risk and needs."
Throughout inmates' terms, correctional policies should give prisoners incentives to take part in programs that would also likely reduce their risk of recidivism. The panel said inmates should be able to cut their sentences by up to 20 percent by participating in such activities.
Before and after releasing inmates, BOP should adopt practices based on scientific evidence.
The federal criminal justice system should enhance performance and accountability through better coordination across agencies and increased transparency.
Congress should reinvest money saved by reducing the prison population to support the expansion of improvement programs for inmates, supervision, and treatment.
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