Federal prisons house almost 10 times the number of inmates as they did in 1980. These facilities, overcapacity by at least a third, are on track to consume over 30 percent of the Department of Justice's budget by 2020. A new study analyzes a slate of options designed to stem this unsustainable growth without compromising public safety. The conclusion: doing so will require major changes in sentencing and early release policies.
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WASHINGTON, D.C., November 5, 2013 -- Federal prisons house almost 10 times the number of inmates as they did in 1980. These facilities, overcapacity by at least a third, are on track to consume over 30 percent of the US Department of Justice’s budget by 2020.
A new Urban Institute study analyzes a slate of options designed to stem this unsustainable growth without compromising public safety. The conclusion: doing so will require major changes in sentencing and early release policies.
Cutting mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in half, retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act to increase the parity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, and offering early release credits to inmates who participate in recidivism reduction programs could save roughly $3 billion in 10 years and virtually eliminate federal prison overcrowding.
Members of Congress across the political spectrum are considering these and other policy changes discussed in the report, as they work to find sustainable solutions to ease overcrowding and budget pressures.
“Sky-high prison costs are a major burden on our federal budget and threaten other law-enforcement priorities. This new report from the Urban Institute raises a number of important questions and will be a helpful resource as the Senate considers legislation to reduce prison costs while improving public safety,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), chairman of the Senate Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee.
“States across the country have adopted reforms that have reduced recidivism and cut costs,” said Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee. “It’s long past time for the federal government to learn from successful state reforms and apply them to the federal system.”
Reshaping the Federal Prison Landscape
Federal prisons house more than 219,000 inmates, about half of whom are drug offenders. The facilities, run by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP), are 35–40 percent above capacity, the result of more people being sent to prison for longer terms, particularly for drug crimes.
The report, “Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System,” follows the flow of decisionmaking through the criminal justice system. The options presented, many of which have been used effectively by states, include changes that reduce the number of people entering prison and their sentence lengths (called front-end options) and changes that result in an early release or transfer to community corrections for people already in custody (back-end options).
Front-end options include adjusting prosecution priorities and modifying sentencing laws and guidelines to reduce the incidence of imprisonment and shorten sentences; reducing the severity and incidence of mandatory minimum sentences; providing judges with greater discretion to deviate from sentencing guidelines; and reducing truth-in-sentencing requirements. Back-end options include greater use of early release and expanded earned time credits for inmates who participate in drug treatment and other programs supporting their successful reentry to their communities.
Near-Term and Long-Term Results
While reductions from front-end reforms can yield large savings in the long term, back-end reforms will likely be necessary to alleviate overcrowded prisons in the near term, the study’s authors pointed out.
“In the longer term, the one front-end option that would reduce the size of the prison population and overcrowding is reducing drug mandatory minimums,” said Nancy La Vigne, a study coauthor and the director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. “This option alone could save almost $2.5 billion over 10 years.”
Besides the costs savings, a smart combination of policies, she added, will make prisons less dangerous and improve the quality and reach of programs designed to keep inmates from reoffending.
“Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System” was written by Julie Samuels, Nancy La Vigne, and Samuel Taxy. It was funded by the Public Welfare Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.
The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation. It provides information, analyses, and perspectives to public and private decisionmakers to help them address these problems and strives to deepen citizens' understanding of the issues and trade-offs that policymakers face.