Bloated Federal Prisons in ‘Dire Need of Reform’


The federal prison system is in “dire need of reform,” former U.S. Representative J. C. Watts, Jr. (R-OK) declared yesterday as the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections that he heads finally got under way in Washington, D.C.

While many states have acted to rein in their growing prison populations, federal prisons have stood out as notable exceptions, with the inmate total ballooning from 25,000 in 1980 to 219,000 in 2013. It’s down to 210,736 as of last week, but many of the 121 federal lockups are full or overcrowded.

After many years of discussion, the Colson Task Force, named after the late prison reformer Chuck Colson, met for the first time at the Urban Institute, which is administering it. The nine-member panel was created at the insistence of retired U.S. Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), who presided over spending for the Justice Department, where the nearly $7 billion spent on prisons each year has been gobbling up more and more of the Attorney General’s budget. That reduces funding available for things like anticrime grants to states and localities, as well as other crime-fighting priorities.

Watts’ bipartisan panel is on a fast track by Washington standards, with a report due in a year. His vice chair, former Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-WV), said that Washington “should follow the example of the states” by coming up with “consensus-driven reform” that he and other task force members hope will reduce the number of federal prisoners while also cutting recidivism.

Both task force members and witnesses yesterday agreed generally that new approaches are needed, such as cutting back on mandatory minimum sentences that have packed federal facilities with drug offenders, and offering more and better services to former inmates—given that up to 95 percent of those now behind bars will get out some day.

Task Force member Jim Liske, president and chief executive officer of Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by Colson, said a basic “change of mindset and culture” is needed so that the purpose of prisons isn’t viewed as “getting bad people out of our neighborhoods” to “how to bring good people home.”

Yesterday’s session was an introductory one, with presentations by U.S. Attorney Richard S. Hartunian of Albany–the U.S. Justice Department representative–federal prison director Charles E. Samuels; Kenneth Cohen, staff director of the U.S. Sentencing Commission; and U.S. District Judge Irene Keeley of Clarksburg, W. Va., chair of the federal judiciary’s Criminal Law Committee.

While it’s too early to predict the task force’s final outcome, it seems clear no single reform will solve the federal correction’s system’s challenges—but rather a collection of changes in all phases of the justice system, none of them easy to achieve.

Among those mentioned yesterday:

  • Reducing mandatory minimum sentences. Already, such penalties are imposed unevenly around the nation. It seems unlikely that Congress will abolish mandatory minimums; rather, judges could be given more discretion to ignore them for defendants who meet certain criteria.
  • Not sending some cases to court in the first place. This requires changing the behavior of federal prosecutors, but some participants talked about “overcriminalization” of offenses that don’t belong in the federal system. Prosecutors can use “pretrial diversion” by sending prospective defendants to treatment or other programs instead of filing charges, but this was done in only 713 of nearly 100,000 federal criminal cases last year.
  • Better classification of prisoners. All inmates aren’t the same, but the criminal justice system historically has not done a good job of sorting out truly dangerous convicts from low-risk ones who may be unlikely to commit new crimes if they get needed substance-abuse treatment or job training while they are behind bars.
  • More attention to prisoner re-entry into society, which would reduce the rate of repeat criminality. It’s not only helping ex-inmates with basics like jobs, housing, and education, but even simpler things. Task force member Cynthia Roseberry, a former public defender, cited a released prisoner who couldn’t even wash her hands in a restroom because she was mystified by automatic faucets.

Some seemingly minor alterations could have a significant impact. Federal prison director Samuels mentioned a pending proposal that would reduce time served by well-behaving inmates by seven more days, a change that could save $40 million annually.

One common theme expressed by most participants yesterday that wasn’t expressed in years past was that reformers should use scientific evidence of what works rather than just a “get tough” response to every crime.

The task force will hold its second of five meetings in March, and during the year will seek input from criminal justice organizations and experts as well as the general public, Watts said.

Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

Comments are closed.