Congressionally Mandated Task Force Calls for Bold Transformation of Federal Corrections System

CONTACT:
Kate Villarreal, kvillarreal@urban.org

WASHINGTON D.C., January 26, 2016—Today, the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections issued a set of bold recommendations to reform the federal justice system, enhance public safety, and save the government billions of dollars. In a new report, Transforming Prisons, Restoring Lives, the Congressionally mandated blue-ribbon panel released the findings of its year-long investigation into the nation’s overcrowded and costly federal prisons.

“We have laid out a detailed roadmap of ambitious, consensus-based recommendations that place public safety first while reserving prison for those who truly need it,” said task force chair, former Republican congressman from Oklahoma J.C. Watts, Jr. “If taken together, these reforms are projected to reduce the federal prison population by 60,000 people in the coming years and save more than $5 billion.”

Congress established the bipartisan panel in 2014 in response to mounting concerns about the scale and cost of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which currently houses 197,000 people with a budget of almost $7.5 billion this year. Alan Mollohan, the task force's vice-chair, said that the seven-fold increase in the BOP's population since the 1980s is unsustainable.

"The BOP has been operating at crisis levels for decades," said Mollohan, a former Democratic congressman from West Virginia. "As a result, its policies and practices have not kept up with best practice in the field, presenting a missed opportunity to rehabilitate those who are confined in federal prisons and thus promote public safety.”

The Task Force was named in honor of Chuck Colson, who served time in federal prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. On release, Colson became a vigorous advocate for prison reform and founded the world’s largest prison ministry. The Task Force’s work was informed by input from over 100 experts and stakeholders through public testimony, roundtable convenings, discussions with leading experts, and conversations with those currently confined in federal prison.

RECOMMENDATIONS

In the report, the task force recommends that the federal justice system move away from its current “one size fits all” approach to meting out punishment and delivering treatment and programs. Instead, they advise that sentencing decisions and correctional responses be based on the individual case–an approach grounded in research evidence as the most effective means of reducing recidivism.

Observing that prison is expensive and imposes tremendous harm to individuals, families, and communities, the Task Force recommends that prison sanctions be used sparingly and long terms of incarceration be reserved for only the most serious federal crimes. They advise incentivizing participation in programs that are proven to lower recidivism and increase the odds of success for individuals reentering society. And, in following the example of successful reforms in states like Texas, Utah, Georgia, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, they advocate for a more diversified, evidence-based approach to criminal justice that delivers public safety at less cost.

In more specific terms, the Task Force recommends that:

  • Mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses should be reserved for “drug kingpins”–those found to have served a leadership role in a large cartel;
  • Program and treatment participation in prison should be incentivized through earned time off one’s sentence; and
  • The BOP should better assess the risks, needs, and assets of its population and align programming and treatment accordingly to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.

Overall, the Task Force envisions the federal criminal justice system as an integrated network, with agencies and decision makers working together more effectively to further the interests of justice and public safety. In this vision, prosecutors would be more selective in the cases they pursue, judges would be equipped with a broader set of sentencing options, the BOP would have better tools to incentivize those incarcerated and improve their outcomes, and reentry would occur seamlessly from BOP to community supervision agencies.

If implemented as a package, the reforms are expected to achieve savings of over $5 billion, allowing for reinvestment in programs proven to reduce crime and freeing up the funds the US Justice Department needs for other priorities, like national security, state and local law enforcement, and victim assistance. Just as important, the reforms will make communities safer by ensuring the right people are sent to prison and that they return to society with the skills, supervision, and support they need to stay crime-free.

To fulfill its mandate, the Colson Task Force delivered its final report to Congress, the Attorney General, and the President.

They will hold a public briefing at the National Press Club at 11 a.m. EDT today. Watch the webcast here.