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Lawmakers Should Follow Federal Task Force’s Prison Reform Recommendations

Earlier this year, the Charles Colson Task Force called for sweeping changes to federal corrections policy that would reduce the federal role in mass incarceration. Lawmakers should follow the guidelines.

  • Jon Frank
May 9, 2016

The federal prison population reached an all-time high of nearly 220,000 people in 2013. Average time spent in prison has also skyrocketed, more than doubling between 1988 and 2012.

Consensus is growing on the need to reduce mass incarceration. But the federal government has lagged behind many states when it comes to reform. Earlier this year, the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections offered a clear path forward, calling for sweeping changes to federal corrections policy that would reduce the federal role in mass incarceration. Lawmakers should follow these guidelines, and build a system that prioritizes public safety and rehabilitation.

The bipartisan Task Force, established by Congress in 2014, issued final recommendations in January calling for alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, and a more rational, public safety-focused approach to corrections. Some recommendations reflected recent Brennan Center proposals.

The Task Force recommended that prosecutors “be more selective in the cases they pursue,” and “file charges that match the seriousness of the underlying offense.” It also recommended that the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, which evaluates federal prosecutors’ offices, “expand the information it provides about cases diverted pretrial, as well as . . . about diversion and reentry court programs.”

These proposals mirror those laid out in our Federal Prosecution in the 21st Century report, which was submitted as verbal and written testimony before the Task Force in March of 2015. That report recommended federal prosecutors prioritize serious and violent cases, and that the Executive Office measure progress by tracking the number of cases diverted from pretrial detention and prosecution.

The Task Force also recommended that federal corrections agencies augment their data collection with new “performance measures” that would quantify progress toward “public safety outcomes” such as reduced recidivism rates. The new measures would also track the type of sentence, length of sentence, and change in population for offenders in the Bureau of Prison system. This is a change from standard performance measures that generally simply track the number of people prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned.

These recommendations mirror the Brennan Center’s call for new “success measures” to evaluate criminal justice actors on the priorities of reducing incarceration and reducing crime, instead of solely on the volume of people pulled into the criminal justice system. In a 2014 report, Success-Oriented Funding: Reforming Federal Criminal Justice Grants, we proposed similar types of success measures for criminal justice agencies including prisons, probation offices, prosecutors, corrections programs, courts, and law enforcement agencies.

Finally, in calling for “budget metrics” to better match up with the public safety outcomes as demonstrated by the new performance measures, the Task Force in essence advocates for the heart of success-oriented funding. The Brennan Center model ties government dollars to clear achievement of the twin goals of reducing crime and mass incarceration.

These reforms speak directly to the prosecutors, judges, and administrators on the front lines of the federal criminal justice system. New performance measures could be implemented immediately. Combined with bipartisan legislative reforms, such as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, they could make the federal government a leader in achieving a justice system that is effective, efficient, and just.