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DOJ Says Soaring Prison Costs Hurt Criminal Justice System, Calls For Sentencing Reform

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WASHINGTON -- There will be fewer federal prosecutors and FBI agents available to bring charges and investigate federal crimes, and less money to support drug treatment programs, unless the U.S. curbs federal prison spending, the Justice Department told the U.S. Sentencing Commission on Thursday.

For at least the past decade, expanding prison and detention spending has been “crowding out” other criminal justice priorities, wrote DOJ Office of Policy and Legislation Director Jonathan J. Wroblewski in the department's annual letter to the commission. With federal budget cuts placing further constraints on spending, he wrote, the government faces a stark choice: "control federal prison spending or see significant reductions in the resources available for all non-prison criminal justice areas.”

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency within the judicial branch, establishes sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts, and works with Congress and the White House to develop crime policy. In recent years, the commission has repeatedly criticized federal mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, which impose severe penalties on many non-violent offenders.

Citing the DOJ’s recommendations in 2011, the commission warned of “real and significant excesses in terms of the imprisonment meted out for some offenders under existing mandatory sentencing laws, especially for some non-violent offenders.”

In the last 40 years, mandatory minimum laws and other policies led to an explosion in the prison population, followed by unprecedented spending. The cost of the federal prison system alone has increased by 1,700 percent in the last three decades.

In his letter, Wroblewski urged the federal government to follow the lead of states that have reduced sentences or provided alternative forms of sentencing for "non-violent, less serious offenders.”

Unless the prison population is reduced and prison spending is cut, Wroblewski wrote, “there will continue to be fewer and fewer prosecutors to bring charges, fewer agents to investigate federal crimes, less support to state and local criminal justice partners, less support to treatment, prevention and intervention programs, and cuts along a range of other criminal justice priorities.”

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