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New Congressional Research Report Criticizes Federal Prisoner Increases

The Congressional Research Service, or CRS, a non-partisan research arm of the United States Congress, has released an extensive report highly critical of the “unprecedented increase in the federal prison population” since the early 1980’s.  The report notes that the number of prisoners in the Bureau of Prisoners (BOP) has “increased from approximately 25,000 in FY 1980 to nearly 219,000 in FY2012,” and offers various recommendations on how to clear up the problem.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU), says that the Congressional Report does not go far enough in addressing the root problems of the American justice system. 

Whereas the Congressional report suggests solutions to overcrowding and short-staffing and runaway expenses, “such as increasing the capacity of the federal prison system by building more prisons, investing in rehabilitative programming, or placing more (prisoners) in private prisons,” the ACLU has made suggestions over the past several years emphasizing attacking the problem at its source, the legislative and judicial level, rather than at the corrections level. .

The ACLU in 2011 published its own report, calling for “smart reform,” noting that even the U.S. Supreme Court had recognized the serious problems in the state and federal correctional systems. Its decision in Plata v. Brown, which criticized conditions in California state prisons, mandated that reforms be instituted to “reduce its prison population in order to alleviate unconstitutional overcrowding,” according to the ACLU report.

The CRS report focused on overcrowding, facility, and prison staffing issues, but the ACLU went beyond on infrastructural modifications and argued for reducing the country’s over-reliance on prisons.  The ACLU hit the nail on the head when they said the, “fiscal prudence has produced new allies who agree that the nation’s addiction to incarceration is bad public policy.  The need for financial austerity has created an unprecedented opening for advocates to promote fair and more effective criminal justice policies that protect public safety, reduce recidivism, keep communities intact,…while saving taxpayer dollars.”

The ACLU report dealt with many states who have instituted reforms to reduce the prison population, such as Kansas, Texas, Ohio, Mississippi, Louisiana, Indiana, and others, all joined by the common thread of having rapidly-rising prison populations and out-of-control incarceration-related spending threatening to eclipse state spending for education.

Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps summed things up it succinctly in 2011 when he said, “We got all these needs, education, health care, and spending all this money on corrections.  We’ve got to decide who we’re mad with, and who we’re afraid of.”

The ACLU noted that in all of the states surveyed that had previously prided themselves on being “tough on crime,” new criminal justice reforms had not only reduced prisoner counts and the expense of incarceration, but also lowered crime rates, and in the case of Mississippi, to its lowest rate since 1984, coincidentally when the “War on Drugs” began.

The ACLU calls this rational approach to criminal justice, “evidence-based,” rather than emotion or retribution-based, reflecting that in most instances prisoners are at some point released from confinement and should be prepared to reenter society as productive citizens.  Although the CRS report brings prisoner issues into the spotlight with decision makers, we can only hope that the long-term solution to incarceration is not addressed with more jail construction and more usage of private prisons, but rather with ”modifying mandatory minimum(s)…, expanding the use of Residential Reentry Centers,… placing more offenders on probation,…reinstating parole for federal (prisoners),…expanding the amount of good time credit (a prisoner) can earn,…and repealing federal criminal statutes for some offense.”

Sources: “The Federal Prison Population Buildup: Overview, Policy Changes, Issues, and Options,” Congressional Research Service, 2013, “Smart Reform Is Possible,” ACLU, 2011.

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