Expert Panel Urges Overhaul Of Bloated Federal Prison System


A task force of experts commissioned by Congress called today for a makeover of the federal prison system, from the sentencing of defendants to the treatment of inmates once they get out.

The Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, completing a year-long study, contended its recommendations would  result in safely dropping the number of federal inmates by 60,000, and save $5 billion.

The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) now runs the nation’s largest prison system, with 196,352 inmates, of whom about 161,000 were in federal facilities as of last week and the rest in other lockups. The prisons overall are occupied far above their official capacity, making them dangerous to inmates and corrections personnel alike. 

The federal prison population has grown eight-fold since 1980, reaching 220,000 in 2013 before it began to decline recently, partly because the U.S. Sentencing Commissioned has reduced the terms of many prisoners serving long sentences for drug crime. About 6,000 such inmates were released late last year.

With almost 40,000 employees, it costs $7.5 billion annually to run federal prisons, more than one-fourth of the U.S. Justice Department’s budget, which has caused concern among members of Congress who watch government spending. Former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chaired the subcommittee that helps set the DOJ budget, proposed the panel, which is named for the late aide to President Richard Nixon who became a prison reformer after his own stint as an inmate during the Watergate scandal.

Terming its recommendations “a strong call for action,” the task force said that states “have demonstrated that it is possible to have both less crime and less incarceration.”

The panel alluded to bills pending in Congress to change federal sentencing, but it said, “the work has just begun. While many elements of congressional reform packages are laudable, far more must be done to reserve prison beds for those who endanger public safety, to individualize sentencing decisions and correctional programs, and to encourage successful reintegration for those leaving custody.”

“We are confident our recommendations, if carried out as detailed in this report, will enable Congress, the President, and the Attorney General to reduce the federal prison population, increase public safety, and cut costs,” said the panel, which was headed by former U.S. House members J. J. Watts (R-OK) and Alan Mollohan (D-WVA).

The Colson panel made six main recommendations to deal with what it criticized as a “one size fits all” system:

  • The federal system should reserve prison beds for those convicted of the most serious federal crimes. This would mean revisiting mandatory minimum drug sentences, which the task force called the “primary driver of BOP overcrowding and unsustainable growth.” The task force would also reduce mandatory minimums for gun crimes.
  • BOP should “promote a culture of safety and rehabilitation and ensure that programming is allocated in accordance with individual risk and needs.”
  • Throughout inmates’ terms, correctional policies should give prisoners incentives to take part in programs that would also likely reduce their risk of recidivism. The panel said inmates should be able to cut their sentences by up to 20 percent by participating in such activities.
  • Before and after releasing inmates, BOP should adopt practices based on scientific evidence.
  • The federal criminal justice system should enhance performance and accountability through better coordination across agencies and increased transparency.
  • Congress should reinvest money saved by reducing the prison population to support the expansion of improvement programs for inmates, supervision, and treatment. 

The panel proposed a host of specific ideas to implement its overall plan, such as a “Second Look” law that would allow federal inmates who have served more than 15 years behind bars to ask for a judicial review of their sentences. 

Many of the proposals could be put into effect by the executive branch without Congressional approval. For example, the task force suggested creating a “permanent BOP Performance, Accountability, and Oversight Board to ensure the BOP carries out the recommended reforms while maintaining high standards of correctional practice.”

The panel also urged establishing a joint Justice Department working group with the federal judiciary to monitor reforms, and setting up a BOP Office of Victim Services to maintain contact with victims of federal offenses.

Overall, the task force’s recommendations would go beyond major bills now pending in the Senate and House to reduce some mandatory minimum sentences and improve the prison system.

Some of those bills are in danger of not passing this year, for a variety of reasons. They include opposition by some Republicans, who argue that they might free dangerous criminals, and demands from conservatives to include a provision requiring that prosecutors prove that defendants intended to violate the law.

With Congress’ agenda already shortened to accommodate major parties’ conventions and the election campaign, the prospects seem slight that provisions will be added to pending legislation reflecting the Colson Task Force recommendations.

The Obama administration must decide which recommendations it might want to adopt before the President leaves office next January.

The most recent director of the Bureau of Prisons, Charles Samuels, has retired. Traditionally, the Attorney General has named the head of BOP. Critics of the agency have called it an inbred bureaucracy, and civil service requirements have discouraged prominent corrections leaders outside of the federal government from applying.

Besides Watts and Mollohan, other members of the Colson Task Force were Craig DeRoche of Prison Fellowship, the organization founded by Colson; David Iglesias, former U.S. Attorney for New Mexico; Jay Neal of the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council; Laurie Robinson, former Assistant Attorney General for Justice Programs; Cynthia Roseberry, a federal public defender and manager of Clemency Project 2014; former federal judge Ricardo Urbina of Washington, D.C.; and Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.

Staff work was done by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute. 

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



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