The ABA urged Congress this month to enact federal legislation to address out-of-control prison costs and prison overcrowding.
Then ABA President Wm. T (Bill) Robinson III, in a statement submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee for the record of an Aug. 1 hearing titled “Rising Prison Costs: Restricting Budget and Crime Prevention Options,” said the hearing “can serve as an important step toward generating a higher level of congressional scrutiny of costly, outdated and, in important respects, ineffective federal corrections spending policies and related sentencing laws.”
Robinson pointed out that in 1980 the federal prison system housed 24,000 people at a cost of $333 million. Since then, however, the federal prison population has exploded with a 700 percent increase to 217,000 inmates at an annual cost of $6 billion, a 1700 percent increase in spending.
“Overcrowding plagues the federal system, operating at almost 40 percent over capacity,” Robinson said, “but we cannot build ourselves out of this crisis.” He explained that disproportionate investment in prison expansion has diminished attention to viable and fiscally sound alternatives to prison and weakened the concept that prison should be the sanction of last resort.
He noted that the federal government wastes precious taxpayer dollars when it incarcerates nonviolent offenders whose actions would be better addressed through alternatives to prison and that bipartisan reforms in the states have expanded proven alternatives to prison that save money and still safeguard the public. These reforms, which can serve as models for federal changes, include: providing for probation rather than jail time for possession of less than a gram of drugs; expanding eligibility for community sentencing; reducing time-served for certain categories of nonviolent offenders; and removing mandatory minimums for first- time offenders. Such changes, Robinson said, have led to the first overall decline in state prison populations since 1980.
Robinson said that estimated savings in the first year alone from instituting specific reforms would include $200 million if Congress makes crack cocaine sentencing reforms retroactive and $41 million if statutory language is clarified for calculating time credits for good behavior. He also recommended that Congress enact legislation that would expand use of probation and expungement of criminal convictions for low-level offenders, institute a review process to accelerate supervised release eligibility, enhance elderly nonviolent offender early-release programs, and restore proportionality to drug sentencing.
In addition, the Bureau of Prisons should be required to use its existing authority to make better use of residential reentry centers, home confinement and the residential drug abuse program as well as compassionate release.
Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis testified at the hearing that “we need to continue our focus on taking violent offenders off our streets while creating comprehensive response to drug offenders – one that encourages treatment and effective supervision when they are released.”
“Sentencing reform works,” according to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who emphasized that “taxpayer dollars can be used more efficiently to better prevent crime than simply building more prisons.”