According to the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, named after the former top advisor to President Richard Nixon who served a stint in federal prison before dedicating his life to prisoner rehabilitation and spiritual growth, “the United States faces a defining moment” and an opportunity to correct the country’s “over-reliance on incarceration.” In a report released in January 2016, the nine-member Task Force, established by Congress in 2014, made six recommendations to correct some of the shortcomings of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
The BOP currently houses approximately 196,000 prisoners, a number that has declined slightly over the last few years but has experienced a six-fold increase since 1980. The Task Force stated that if the BOP adopts the proposed recommendations, it could cut the prison population by 60,000 and save approximately $5 billion.
First, the Task Force recommended, “At sentencing, the federal system should reserve prison beds for those convicted of the most serious federal crimes.” The Task Force said this goal “cannot be achieved without addressing mandatory minimum drug penalties – the primary driver of BOP overcrowding and unsustainable growth.”
The report noted that “[t]he vast majority of federal sentences (90 percent) incorporate a term of incarceration, and most judicial districts do not operate specialty courts or offer front-end diversion from prison. It is a one-size-fits-all model and it contrasts starkly with the states, where policymakers are reducing both costs and crime through heavier emphasis on evidence-guided correctional approaches tailored to the risk and need profiles of each individual.”
Second, the Task Force suggested that “the federal Bureau of Prisons should promote a culture of safety and rehabilitation and ensure that programming is allocated in accordance with individual risk and needs.” There should be sufficient staff to ensure a safe environment, with an emphasis on programs and contact with friends and family members to assist with the rehabilitative process.
Third, the Task Force recommended that “Throughout the prison term, correctional policies should incentivize participation in risk-reduction programming.” Prisoners should be encouraged to participate in rehabilitative programs to achieve sentence credits, and a “second look” provision should be used to “ensure judicious use of incarceration and encourage rehabilitation.”
“Prior to and following release, the federal correctional system should ensure successful reintegration by using evidence-based practices in supervision and support,” was the fourth recommendation. People leaving prison need to be given “the tools, services, supervision, and support necessary for successful reintegration.”
Fifth, “The federal criminal justice system should enhance performance and accountability through better coordination across agencies and increased transparency.” The Task Force noted that reform is necessary to “hold agencies accountable for results” – an uncommon occurrence in the BOP, which is rarely held accountable for its deficiencies.
Finally, the Task Force recommended that “Congress should reinvest savings to support the expansion of necessary programs, supervision, and treatment.” It is currently difficult for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Bureau of Prisons to devote sufficient resources to programming when federal prisons are overcrowded and require funds to be diverted from other DOJ agencies to the BOP.
“Now almost $7.5 billion, federal prison spending has grown at more than twice the rate of the rest of the DOJ budget and accounts for about one-quarter of the total,” the Task Force noted. “Unfortunately, these expenditures have not yielded the public safety we seek. About 40 percent of those who leave federal prison are re-arrested or have their supervision revoked within three years. And inside federal prisons, serious problems persist, with overcrowding a particular challenge.”
Of course this is not the first time a task force or commission has suggested a plan to reform the BOP and the rest of the federal criminal justice system; the Inspector General of the DOJ, Congressional committees and the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons have also developed plans for similar improvements. The question is whether this time the recommendations will finally translate into action by Congress and the executive branch, which have been slow to adopt reforms in the past, or if the Charles Colson Task Force’s report will simply sit on a shelf alongside the many other studies that have come before it.
Members of the Task Force included former Congressman J.C. Watts, Jr.; former Congressman Alan B. Mollohan; Craig DeRoche with Prison Fellowship (the faith-based organization founded by Charles Colson); David C. Iglesias, director of the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics and Economics at Wheaton College and a former U.S. Attorney; Prison Fellowship president and CEO Jim Liske; Jay Neal with the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council; Prof. Laurie O. Robinson, a former Assistant Attorney General who teaches at George Mason University; former federal public defender Cynthia W. Roseberry, who directs the Clemency Project 2014; former U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo M. Urbina; and John E. Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
Source: “Transforming Prisons, Restoring Lives,” Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections (Jan. 2016), available at: www.colsontaskforce.org
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