Today, Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles E. Samuels, Jr. will testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to examine cost-effective strategies for reducing recidivism. The past few months have seen numerous voices on both right and left push for comprehensive criminal justice reform – including Senators Leahy, Paul, Durbin, and Lee of the Judiciary Committee. The Senators should use this hearing to remind Director Samuels that prison overcrowding is the single biggest fiscal and moral crisis facing his agency today – and that the BOP has an opportunity to take the lead in America’ shift away from mass incarceration.
Overcrowded, understaffed, and costly may be the best words to describe America’s prisons. The numbers are glaring: federal prisons are operating at 36 percent over capacity; high security facilities are 53 percent over capacity. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) accounts for a quarter of the Department of Justice’s overall budget, which will swell by nearly 30 percent by 2020 if something doesn’t change. The reason? Since 1980, the federal prison population has increased by nearly 800 percent. This is an unsustainable system.
BOP is charged with protecting society by confining offenders in prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and secure, and that provide work and other self improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.
BOP is failing to meet those goals.
The Government Accountability Office has warned that the record number of inmates has a negative impact on staff and infrastructure facilities, while causing increased inmate misconduct. In addition, few prisoners receive access to health care or housing services, job training, educational opportunities or treatment for mental health or substance abuse problems – exactly the type of programs that keep prison populations down by reducing recidivism rates.
For example, statistics show participants in the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) are significantly less likely to recidivate or to relapse into drug use. Over 40 percent of federal inmates suffer from a substance abuse problem. Investing money in programs like RADP that help rehabilitate offenders will ultimately save the taxpayer valuable funds that could go towards schools, infrastructure, or law enforcement.
Every year, more than 700,000 individuals are released back into their communities from state and federal prisons. The BOP needs to look beyond confinement at what steps it can take to adequately prepare them for reentry. Inmates should be instructed how to reinstate their Medicaid benefits, how to restore their voting rights, they need a guide for the process of finding affordable housing, and provided job training and placement. All of these steps have a proven track record of reducing recidivism.
The current state of federal prisons is not primarily BOP’s fault – it is the result of systematic problems with the nation’s criminal justice policy. BOP has made some efforts to improve the current system. They have offered preferential housing for those well-behaved inmates, expanded some program options, and leveraged resources to provide more services. They have also expanded the criteria for allowing inmates compassionate release to include those who are terminally ill and elderly inmates who did not committee violent crimes.
While this is a step in the right direction, BOP leadership must take additional action to implement the comprehensive reforms necessary to address the nation’s incarceration crisis. Comprehensive reforms require not just an increase in services, but also sentencing reform, more funding for indigent defense, and change in the way that law enforcement, prosecutors, and public defenders do business. Failure to lead on significant change will only sustain an indefensible situation for BOP.