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October 01, 2013

ABA recommends way to address prison costs and safety

The ABA urged a House Judiciary subcommittee to move legislation to address out-of-control prison costs and prison overcrowding and to press the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to fully utilize existing programs to release eligible prisoners into their communities.

 “The ABA believes that the same level of scrutiny that is applied with regard to federal spending in other areas must be applied to spending on prisons, corrections, and criminal justice policies,” ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman said in a statement submitted for the record of a hearing on prison issues convened Sept. 19 by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations. “We must ask whether these crime and corrections policies are cost-effective and evidence-based, and whether they are more or less effective in reducing crime and serving public safety than other alternatives,” he wrote.

Susman pointed out that the federal prison population has exploded since 1980, when the system housed 24,000 people at an annual cost of $333 million. There are now 217,000 people in prison at an annual cost of over $6 billion – an increase of 760 percent in population and 1,700 percent in spending. The most significant source of this exponential growth is the increased incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders whose actions, Susman said, would be better addressed through alternatives that will hold them equally accountable at a substantially lower cost.

He highlighted successful bipartisan state-level reforms that have led to the first overall declines in state prison populations since 1980. Such reforms include; requiring probation rather than jail time for drug possession offenders with less than a gram of drugs (Texas); expanding eligibility for community sentencing and increasing the use of parole for nonviolent offenders (Oklahoma); and removing mandatory minimums for first-time offenders (South Carolina).

Susman said that BOP should expand the use of its Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program, which enrolled only 19 percent of those who qualified for a 12-month sentencing reduction program from 2009 to 2011. BOP also should use its full authority provided by new guidelines to identify and bring to the court’s attention all cases that meet the criteria for compassionate release, a practice that for many years was limited to cases where the prisoner had a terminal illness with a life expectancy of one year or less or had a profoundly debilitating medical condition.

BOP also should ensure, as Congress has directed, that persons in federal prisons have an opportunity to spend up to 12 months in re-entry facilities so they will successfully reenter the community after their release, he said. This may include a full year in a residential reentry center or halfway house, or in-home confinement for up to six months of that one-year total.

Susman also urged action on the following two legislative proposals: the Public Safely Enhancement Act of 2013, which would expand recidivism-reduction programs in federal prisons and authorize early release of prisoners who committed certain non-violent offenses and have participated in such programs; and the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, to authorize federal courts to impose sentences below statutory mandatory minimums for certain nonviolent offenses.

“Restoring federal judicial discretion in certain, low-level nonviolent drug cases by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences would not ignore culpability, but would ensure that defendants receive punishments that are proportional to the offenses they committed and would dis-incentivize states’ shifting of such cases to the federal justice system,” he said.

During the Sept. 19 hearing, BOP Director Charles E. Samuels Jr. testified that two provisions in the Justice Department’s new “Smart on Crime” initiative should have a direct, positive impact on BOP’s population while still deterring crime and protecting the public. The changes will provide, upon order of the sentencing judge, for the release of some non-violent offenders and urge prosecutors in appropriate circumstances involving non-violent offenses to consider alternatives to incarceration, such as drug courts, other specialty courts, or other diversion programs.

 “The ‘Smart on Crime’ initiative is only the beginning of an ongoing effort to modernize the criminal justice system,” he said.

Samuels also highlighted administration support for legislation to expand inmate Good Conduct Time to provide inmates up to the full 54 days per year stated in current law  and to provide inmates with an incentive to earn sentence credits annually for successfully participating in programs that are effective at reducing recidivism.  

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