Above: Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Rep. Mick Mulvaney
There is nothing subtle about the latest version of the justice budget pitched by the Trump administration. It is as unenlightened, regressive, and ultimately self-defeating as are the public officials backing it. It eliminates virtually every reasonable discretionary reform employed by the Obama administration to help ease incarceration and recidivism rates. Bad news for people who care about police accountability, or about recruiting the smartest lawyers to serve as prosecutors or public defenders, or about helping ex-offenders gain a foothold in their communities upon their release from prison, or about alleviating the pain of those affected by drug addiction.
At the same time the Trump justice budget restores virtually every bad sentencing policy that helped foster our historic mass incarceration and the racial disparities that come with it. More prosecutors. Less oversight. More pressure on judges to impose harsh sentences. Less concern for due process and inmate safety and the collateral consequences of non-violent drug offenses. It takes us back to a thoroughly debunked world of criminal justice, guarantees our immigration courts will become worse than the disasters they are now, and ought to make every woman, and every domestic violence survivor, cringe.
In a sense, the proposed budget is a down payment on a self-fulfilling prophecy that tracks the Trump team’s “American carnage” motif. Naturally, federal crime rates will rise now. Not because we suddenly are going to become more violent or lawless or engage in more drug trafficking, but because the 300 new federal prosecutors the Justice Department wants to hire will charge more people with more drug crimes that generate longer sentences. Some of these cases will involve violent crime. Most will not. Presto, there is your federal crime wave! Which of course the president and his attorney general will trumpet as proof they were right about the “carnage.”
There is no way Congress will approve every component of this atrocious plan but even after lawmakers refine the White House budget it will represent glad tidings for private prison operators and their shareholders. Mass incarceration is good for business when your business is filling prison beds. For the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and those who oversee it, however, life is about to get grimmer. For the BOP, the proposed budget is unsustainable for a very simple reason: at the same time that Trump and company are promising more federal prisoners coming into the penal system the Justice Department wants to cut dramatically the federal prison budget. As the folks at Families Against Mandatory Minimums put it:
This week, the attorney general proposed to eliminate nearly 2,000 prison guards (a 9 percent reduction) and more than 6,000 program and administrative staff (a 14 percent reduction). This is reckless and dangerous. Overcrowded and understaffed prisons jeopardize the physical safety of guards and prisoners. Just last month, BOP warned that despite recent progress in reducing the federal prison population, high- and medium-security prisons remain “very crowded.” High-security prisons today are filled to 125 percent of capacity, and medium-security facilities are at 120 percent of capacity.
Overcrowding and a concomitant lack of adequate staffing within the BOP is not a new development. This dangerous dynamic has been around for as long as federal incarceration rates have outpaced federal spending on prisons (decades, at least). Adding to the problem today is the aging federal prison population; it simply costs more to care for old and ill inmates. Eighteen percent of the 190,000 federal inmates today are older than 50. The Justice Department’s Inspector General has been warning everyone and anyone about the problem for years—even as the federal prison population ticked down a bit during the Obama years.
Three years ago, for example, Michael Horowitz, the inspector general, warned that the problem was persistent even though the Bureau of Prisons’s budget nearly doubled, from $3.8 billion to $6.9 billion, from 2000 to 2014. He pressed, among other reforms, for more “compassionate release” orders for elderly or ailing inmates who clearly pose no threat to public safety, a request the Obama administration, to its eternal discredit, failed or refused to abide. Indeed, one of the most important failures of the Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch during their tenures was their inability to successfully fight and fix the BOP.
Now here comes Jeff Sessions, and President Trump, promising to make life within the nation’s prisons even more miserable than for both inmates and staff. Take the Eighth Amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment out of the equation for a moment. Forget that the Constitution requires the government to treat its prisoners with basic human decency (a goal met less often than you would think). Why should you care if the nation’s prisons become more overcrowded and dangerous than they are today? Why should you care if fewer federal inmates are able to benefit from education and training programs? Why should you care if more federal prisoners are unable to get even basic medical or mental health care or treatment while in custody?
Because the vast majority of those inmates will be released one day. The men and women who serve their terms in the Trump administration’s Bureau of Prisons will be less prepared for civilian life and thus more dangerous to the public than inmates released today. That, in essence, is the Trump administration’s brilliant public safety plan, a plan that undermines public safety and instead guarantees cycles of crime and incarceration for generations to come. Unenlightened, regressive, and self-defeating: the Trump Justice Department already is in its prime.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
(Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore)