Congress is looking to cut the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Prisons (BOP) budget, and at its request the federal government’s General Accounting Office (GAO) has published a comprehensive study of that budget for the years 2009 to 2013. To no one’s surprise, that budget revealed that the BOP spends most of it money on salaries and pensions, with only a small percentage available for education and reentry programs needed to reduce recidivism. The same study revealed that the BOP has done a poor job of curbing its spending, which now threatens to siphon funds from other DOJ agencies.
Prison Legal News has previously reported that the BOP’s budget history reported by the GAO shows that the agency has failed to make meaningful reductions in spending. As a result, during the Sequester, DOJ actually had to divert funds from other federal law enforcement agencies to pay BOP salaries and avoid prison guard layoffs.
The current BOP budget now stands at $6.6 billion, and absorbs an every-increasing percentage of the DOJ budget. According to the Inspector General’s Office, runaway spending by the BOP “threaten(s) the department’s ability to fulfill its mission in other areas, including maintaining national security, enforcing criminal law, and defending civil rights.”
Although the recession and uneven economic recovery has tightened federal expenditures in most areas, BOP expenditures continue their upward climb. Although much of the past increase can be attributable to rising prisoner counts for drug offenders, that number has leveled off, and even declined slightly last year by several thousand. Nonetheless, annual per capita prisoner expenditures climbed to a record $31,000 this year, and the BOP projects record expenditures in the coming years.
The BOP claimed that it had instituted several cost savings programs of several million dollars by renegotiating contracts, but those savings pale against the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on ever-increasing salaries and pensions. The GAO was also critical, noting that opportunities were available to “BOP authorities to reduce inmate sentences, and thus its costs…” by taking advantage of statutory authority it already possesses, such as “good time” credits, increased halfway house time, compassionate release, and the like.
Although the GAO concedes that prison population drives the cost increase in many cases, the figures show that salary and pension outlays leave little money remaining for programs designed to reduce sentences such as the Residential Drug and Alcohol Program (RDAP), which continues to be heavily under funded. According to the GAO, “greater use of programs such as Compassionate Release for terminally ill inmates could reduce sentences, but cost savings relative to BOP’s budget would be small…” This is not hard to understand, since although the BOP is heavily populated with sick, elderly prisoners confined to wheelchairs, walkers, and bed, it saw fit to grant compassionate release to only 25 inmates in 2013, a shamefully low figure.
The conclusion to be drawn from the GAO study is clear. Since the BOP seems institutionally incapable of developing or properly executing programs to reduce its prisoner populations, it is even more important for Congress to take action on sentencing reform. It is even more important for DOJ to implement smarter charging and prosecutorial strategy, and the judiciary to use good sense and compassion when sentencing. As noted by the GAO, “an option to reduce sentences of incarcerated drug offenders by an average of 44 percent could save about $4.1 billion…(and) could be even higher if the changes sufficiently reduced the inmate population to allow BOP to reduce its staff or close facilities.”
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