A congressionally mandated task force on the federal prison system is being named today, headed by a bipartisan duo of former House members, Republican J. C. Watts of Oklahoma and Democrat Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.
They are being be joined by seven other experts in a yearlong study that many analysts hope will result in agreement on ways to cut the prison population.
There were 212,438 federal inmates last week, a total that has jumped from about 136,000 since the turn of the century– even though crime rates have steadily fallen. (The federal inmate total exceeded 218,000 two years ago; it has shrunk as the Obama administration has reduced the terms of some prisoners serving time for low-level drug offenses.)
Despite this recent downturn, in general over the last decade, many states have stabilized or cut their inmate totals—and the federal government has stood out as a notable exception. One consequence is that prison operations have consumed a larger chunk of the Department of Justice (DOJ) budget.
Last month, Justice’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, said that the Bureau of Prisons budget totals $6.9 billion and accounts for about 25 percent of the department's “discretionary” budget, which means that prison spending hampers the DOJ’s “ability to make other public safety investments.”
The new task force is named for the late Chuck Colson, the former aide to President Richard Nixon who served a 7-month prison term in 1974 for obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal and then became a corrections reformer, founding the Prison Fellowship. Colson died in 2012.
Retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the committee that reviews Justice Department appropriations, successfully pushed for the task force in recent years while Congress was unable to agree on any major legal changes that would affect the federal inmate total.
Watts, who will chair the panel, served in the House from 1995 to 2003. When he was elected, he was one of only two African-American Republicans in the House. He is a member of the conservative justice-reform group Right on Crime.
Last summer, in an article in the Tulsa World on prison reform in Oklahoma, Watts wrote that, “for nonviolent offenders, watching television and receiving ‘three hots and a cot’ in prison does far less to advance personal responsibility than paying restitution to the victim, performing community service, holding a job and paying child support.”
Mollohan, who serve as vice chair, was Wolf’s predecessor as the House’s chief Justice Department appropriator when the Democrats controlled the House. Mollohan has presided over many hearings on corrections issues. In 2012, he co-authored an op-ed article with David Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, declaring that, “Instead of throwing good money after bad, Congress should follow the example of … states and take steps to curb federal prison population growth.”
Other members of the task force are former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico; Jim Liske, president and CEO of the Prison Fellowship Ministries; former Georgia Rep. Jay Neal, executive director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Re-Entry, Laurie Robinson of George Mason University, former Assistant Attorney General for the Office Justice Programs; Cynthia W. Roseberry, project manager of Clemency Project 2014 and former executive director of the Federal Defenders of the Middle District of Georgia; former U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of Washington, D.C., and John E. Wetzel, Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections.
The task force will hold the first of five meetings on January 27 in Washington, D.C. Its official mandate is to “identify the drivers of federal prison population growth and increasing corrections costs; evaluate policy options to address the drivers and identify recommendations; and prepare and submit a final report in December 2015 with findings, conclusions, policy recommendations, and legislative changes for consideration by Congress, the Attorney General, and the President.”
The Urban Institute and the Center for Effective Public Policy will provide “research, analysis, strategic guidance and logistical support” for the task force under an agreement with the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.
A year ago, the Urban Institute published a study titled “Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System,” that might be something of a blueprint for the Colson group.
The study concluded that, “To yield a meaningful impact on population and costs, a mix of reforms to sentencing, prosecution, and early release policies are required. A combination of front-end and back-end options will be necessary to address the problem in a meaningful way.
“While reductions from front-end reforms to sentencing, prosecution, and law enforcement practices can have the largest impact in the long term, back-end reforms, which could release current inmates earlier, will likely be necessary to alleviate dangerous prison conditions in the near term.”
Several members of Congress, notably Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), have introduced proposals that could lead to reductions in the federal prison population, but it is not clear that any will be enacted while the Colson task force is conducting its study.
In any case, the task force’s final report is likely to include recommendations that will go beyond any bills that might be approved in the next year. The group’s eventual proposals may include some that require Congressional approval and others that the Obama administration could put into effect by executive order.
More information on the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections can be found at its new website.
Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.