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GAO Examines How BOP Can Reduce Prisoners’ Time in Prison

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a study on the Bureau of Prisons’ authority to shorten a federal prisoner’s sentence. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was found to have three principal authorities with respect to sentence reduction: prisoners can earn up to twelve months off for successfully completing the Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program (RDAP); eligible prisoners can be transferred to community corrections for up to the final 12 months of their sentences; and prisoners can theoretically earn up to 54 days a year for good conduct while incarcerated.

Unfortunately, according to the GAO’s review of data from 2009 to 2011, due to budgetary constraints, mismanagement or bureaucratic indifference, the BOP does not fully utilize all of the sentence-reduction resources at its disposal. As a result, federal prisoners spend more time away from their families and communities, which costs the taxpayers millions of dollars and contributes to prison overcrowding.

RDAP consists of coursework and counseling that addresses both drug and alcohol abuse. According to the GAO the problem of substance abuse among prisoners is staggering, as the “BOP estimates that 40 percent [of those] entering federal custody have a substance abuse disorder....” Despite that fact, only 19,000 prisoners were able to participate in the program during the time period reviewed. The BOP currently houses approximately 217,000 prisoners and operates at 38 percent over capacity.

Due to overcrowding and other program inefficiencies, such as an inability to hire staff or fill vacancies in a timely manner, very few prisoners who complete RDAP receive the full 12-month sentence reduction authorized by statute and BOP program statements.
According to the GAO, “during fiscal years 2009 through 2011, of the 15,302 [prisoners] ... who completed RDAP and were eligible for a sentence reduction, 2,846 (19 percent) received the maximum reduction and the average reduction was 8.0 months.” BOP officials have acknowledged that most RDAP participants do not receive the full amount of time off because they have less than 12 months to serve on their sentences by the time they finish the program.

Interestingly, the BOP claimed that “during fiscal years 2009 and 2010 all eligible inmates who expressed interest in RDAP were able to participate in the program in time to complete it before their release from BOP custody.” The GAO questioned this finding due to how the BOP tracks completion of RDAP, noting that prisoners whose program participation crosses over into the next year are apparently “double-counted,” and that only 6,875 complete the program in a year. Further, the GAO did not take into account prisoners who are discouraged from entering RDAP due to the limited amount of time off their sentences they would receive when they are finally able to enter the program.

The BOP, according to the GAO study, acknowledged that “Delays resulting from this system-wide demand can prevent timely inmate entry into RDAP and can reduce the number of eligible inmates receiving the maximum allowable sentence reduction...,” due to lack of program capacity. The BOP’s management of RDAP has been criticized as inconsistent and unnecessarily costly. [See: PLN, Aug. 2012, p.28].

The referral of federal prisoners to community corrections is a second option by which the BOP can reduce prisoners’ time in prison. According to the Second Chance Act, which was touted as offering up to 12 months of halfway house placement prior to a prisoner’s release, the public was led to believe that the BOP would utilize this option to reduce prison overcrowding. However, when the time came to issue rules and program statements for halfway house placement, 12 months became an average of well under six months, and generally 3.

The Second Chance Act also directed the BOP to “consider using home detention as part of an inmate’s reintegration into the community.” However, once again, until the BOP began to run into budget constraints and possible funding cuts, home detention placements were rarely made.

According to the GAO, in fiscal year 2010 “almost 29,000 inmates completed their sentences through community corrections,” including 17,672 who were placed in residential reentry centers (RRCs), 11,094 placed in RRCs followed by home detention and 145 placed in home detention only. The average length of placement in community corrections was just 115 days. The average halfway house stay was 95 days in fiscal year 2010, significantly shorter than the allowable 365 days.

Finally, according to the BOP, most eligible prisoners receive all of their good time credit if they do not commit disciplinary infractions. Prisoners who are serving a term of more than one year may receive 54 days a year off their sentences if they have earned or are earning a high school degree or GED equivalent.

However, there have been objections to the manner in which the BOP computes the good time credit, as federal prisoners do not receive 54 days per year but rather get only 47 days. In Barber v. Thomas, 130 S.Ct. 2499 (2010) [PLN, Sept. 2010, p.46], the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this method of computation, with the net result that federal prisoners spend more time in prison, which increases incarceration costs for the BOP – and thus taxpayers – and contributes to overcrowding.

There are various other sentence-reduction options available to the BOP, but they are statistically insignificant and result in less than 1 percent of prisoners being found eligible.

Other than the usual bureaucratic inefficiencies found in most governmental agencies, the principal obstacle seems to be lack of community corrections and RRC space, which has been cited as a primary reason for RDAP participants not receiving their full sentence reduction. The GAO noted that the BOP currently does not have a “road map” for correcting this problem, had “not provided documentation” on its review process for certifying new RRC facilities and had set no time frames to remedy those deficiencies.

The GAO concluded by stating, “Federal inmate populations have been increasing and BOP is operating at more than a third over capacity. In addition, the absence of parole in the federal system and other federal statutes limit BOP’s authority to modify an inmate’s period of incarceration. Inmates, who earn their good conduct time, as most do, end up serving about 87 percent of their sentences. BOP’s housing of inmates in community-based facilities or home detention is a key flexibility it uses to affect a prisoner’s period of incarceration. However, BOP does not require its RRC contractors to separate the price of home detention services from the price of RRC beds. As a result, BOP lacks information on the price of home detention that could assist it in weighing the costs and benefits of alternative options for supervising inmates in home detention.”

Thus, the GAO recommended that the BOP “establish a plan, including time frames and milestones for completion, for requiring [RRC] contractors to submit separate prices for RRC beds and home detention services” – data which the BOP does not currently collect, which would assist federal prison officials in making future community corrections placement decisions.

Source: “Report to Congressional Requesters, Bureau of Prisons, Eligibility and Capacity Impact Use of Flexibilities to Reduce Inmates’ Time in Prison,” GAO-12-320 (Feb. 7, 2012)

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