America’s federal prisons are in trouble.
They’re so crowded they’re endangering the lives of inmates and corrections officers, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Charles Samuels Jr., testified at a Senate hearing on Wednesday. And the immense cost of confining so many people is draining vital resources from from other public safety endeavors, including investigations and prosecutions.
Politicians across the political spectrum, from Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to Rand Paul (R-Ky.), increasingly agree that something has to be done.
Now, a report from the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank for social and economic policy research, examines a host of specific suggestions, including several proposals awaiting a vote in Congress.
The study, released this week, concludes that the federal government could save billions and significantly ease the overcrowding crisis by adopting strategies that include cutting fixed sentences for drug offenses in half, retroactively applying a law that lessens the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, and offering early-release credits to inmates who participate in programs designed to keep them from committing new crimes after they're released.
“The current situation with respect to the prison system is unsustainable,” said Julie Samuels, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center and one of the authors of the report (no relation to the prisons director). “I think what we’ve tried to do is lay out the array of options that we have to change that.”
Not everyone agrees that it’s in the country’s best interests to pursue these options. At the Senate hearing where the prisons chief spoke, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a former U.S. attorney, attributed the dramatic reduction of violent crimes over the last three decades to the growth of the prison population. The more murderers and rapists “you have in jail, the fewer murders and rapes you are going to have,” he said. “That’s just a fact.”
But supporters of prison reform argue that it’s possible to reduce overcrowding without compromising public safety. Below are 10 key proposals examined by the Urban Institute and how they may help save money and empty prison beds over the next decade.
1. Send fewer people to prison for drug crimes.
The problem: There are 219,000 inmates in the federal prisons system -- compared with 25,000 in 1980. About half are there for drug offenses.
The fix: In a major speech in August, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would try to ensure that fewer people spend years behind bars for non-violent drug crimes, in part by directing prosecutors to bring fewer drug cases to federal court.
Potential savings: If prosecutors and judges send 20 percent fewer drug offenders to prison, the federal government would save $1.29 billion and the prisons would save 125,000 “bed years.” (A bed year is a year’s worth of prison time for one person.)
2. Allow drug offenders to serve shorter sentences.
The problem: Why are so many people locked up for drug crimes? The answer has a lot to do with federal mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. Under one law, judges are required to sentence drug offenders to prison terms ranging from 5 years to 20 years, depending on the type and quantity of the drug. Before this 1986 law, one-quarter of all federal drug offenders were fined or sentenced to probation, the study notes. Today, 95 percent end up behind bars.
The fix: A recent bill introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in the Senate, and an identical proposal unveiled last week by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), among others, would cut the length of those mandatory prison sentences in half.
Potential savings: The report concludes that this reform would have “a monumental effect,” saving the government $2.49 billion over 10 years while reducing overcrowding to “its lowest level in decades.”
3. Give judges greater discretion over sentencing.
The problem: Even under the current law, judges don’t always have to subject defendants to minimum sentences. A judge can deviate from this protocol, but only if the defendant has been convicted of a nonviolent drug crime and has a very clean criminal record.
The fix: The bill introduced by Durbin, Lee, and Leahy would expand this “safety valve” to include drug offenders with slightly greater criminal histories who pose little danger to the public.
Potential savings: 53,000 bed years, $544 million.
4. Give judges even greater discretion.
The problem: That “safety valve” only applies to drug offenders, not to people who face mandatory minimum sentences for offenses that have nothing to do with drugs, like some white-collar crimes.
The fix: Create a new “safety valve” that could be offered to everyone facing a mandatory minimum sentence.
Potential savings: 81,000 bed years, $835 million.
5. Lower the “truth-in-sentencing” requirement.
The problem: Current law says that everyone in the federal prison system must serve at least 85 percent of the time to which he or she is sentenced, known as the “truth-in-sentencing” requirement.
The fix: Require offenders instead to serve 70 percent of their sentences.
Potential savings: 150,000 bed years, $1.55 billion.
6. Make sure that people aren’t disproportionately punished for using crack instead of powder cocaine.
The problem: A sentencing law passed in the 1980s dictated that that people caught dealing or posessing crack would go to prison for much longer than people caught with powder cocaine. Many criminal justice advocates have argued that this law essentially targeted blacks, since crack is cheaper than powder cocaine and more popular among low-income people. Carl Hart, an associate professor of neuroscience at Columbia University and an expert on illegal drugs, writes that “there are no pharmacological differences between crack and powder cocaine to justify their differential treatment under the law.”
The fix: The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 decreased the disparity between crack and powder cocaine punishments for anyone sentenced after the law was passed. By applying this law retroactively, to people now serving crack-related prison time, the government would extend its benefits to people who were sentenced before the law was adopted.
Potential savings: 22,000 bed years, $229 million.
7. Allow more prisoners to reduce their sentences through credit for good behavior.
The problem: Many federal prisoners are eligible to get months or years chopped off of their sentences, but only if they participate in a particular drug treatment program.
The fix: Expand the number of rehabilitation programs that offer credits toward early release for those who participate. (This option also offers the benefit of providing more inmates with skills that could help them stay out of trouble after they’re released.)
Potential savings: 22,000 bed years, $224 million.
8. Give prisoners a full year off their sentences for participation in a drug rehabilitation program.
The problem: Federal prisoners who graduate from the system’s main drug program are supposed to get a full year off their sentences. But thanks to overcrowding, the line to get into the program is so long that many offenders have less than a year of their sentences left by the time they graduate.
The fix: Expand the program so that every graduate receives a full year off his or her sentence.
Potential savings: 880 bed years, $9.1 million.
9. Release more elderly prisoners from Bureau of Prisons custody.
The problem: After the age of 55, people who are released from prison are highly unlikely to commit new crimes, according to many studies. Yet 17,400 people in federal prisons are older than 55, according to the report.
The fix: Release some of them before their sentences are up. (The report assumed that fewer than half would be promising candidates.)
Potential savings: 700 bed years, $7.8 million.
10: Send more foreign inmates back to their home countries.
The problem: 54,200 federal prisoners aren’t U.S. citizens.
The fix: Streamline the “international transfer” program so that twice as many prisoners are sent to prisons in their home countries.
Potential savings: 670 bed years, $6.9 million.