The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 10, 2013

Reforming Prison Practices to Reduce the Budget

April 10, 2013

With the federal government increasingly tightening its belt through furloughs and budget cuts, law enforcement and crime prevention activities throughout the country have already taken a hit.

Further reductions in the Department of Justice’s funding that may result from the president’s FY 2014 budget would curtail essential criminal justice activities, such as drug courts and gang reduction initiatives funded through state and local grants.

The possibility of prolonged cuts to the Department of Justice (DOJ) is especially concerning given that the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) continues to consume an increasing share of federal resources.

 

prison

DOJ’s budget growth is driven by the BOP

 

In fiscal year 2013, for example, the BOP commanded a 25 percent share of DOJ’s budget, a 4.2 percent increase from fiscal year 2012. If current rates of growth continue, the BOP could consume nearly 30 percent of DOJ’s budget by 2020.

The growth in the BOP’s portion of the budget is mirrored by dramatic increases in the federal prison population. The BOP population is now nearly 10 times what it was in 1980. In addition to posing substantial costs to taxpayers, the expanding BOP population creates concerns about overcrowded facilities and the disproportionate impacts of incarceration on certain subpopulations and communities.

This continued funding of the BOP will come at the expense of resources for other pressing public safety activities.

Curbing federal prison growth

So what can federal policymakers do to stem the tide of mass incarceration, saving scarce resources that could be better used to prevent cuts to essential services?

They can start by looking at the two main drivers of the growth in the federal prison population: increasing prisoner admissions and longer sentence lengths.

In particular, the increase in time served by drug offenders—who make up half the BOP population today—was the biggest factor in the growth of the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010.

Reducing the prison population therefore requires policies that

  • shorten sentences for drug offenders,
  • expand the use of alternatives to incarceration for low-level nonviolent drug offenders, and
  • impose back-end sentence reductions for those already incarcerated.

While the BOP plays a key role in implementing some of these changes, its ability to do so on a large scale is limited by current law and budget constraints; many of these changes will require congressional action.

Moreover, making policy changes to curb federal prison growth requires input and support from a wide array of criminal justice stakeholders, such as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, corrections officials, victims advocates, and legislators.  Buy-in from these key decision makers will be essential to successfully drive down the federal prison population.

Photo by Flickr user x1klima used under Creative Commons License (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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