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Justice Department Failing to Assess Prison Population Reduction, Clemency and Reentry Programs

by Christopher Zoukis

In a statement made to members of Congress on December 13, 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported on the failure of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to properly implement recommendations intended to measure the success of incarceration reduction and reentry initiatives. The programs, recommended by the GAO over the last several years, are designed to reduce the federal prison population and lower recidivism rates through successful reentry preparation.

The prison population reduction and reentry programs are essential elements of overall criminal justice reform efforts at the federal level. But Diana Maurer, director of the GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice Office, said the failure to measure the performance of those programs inhibits their value.

Maurer told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that “knowing the outcomes of these efforts can help BOP [Bureau of Prisons] adjust its policies and procedures, and ultimately optimize their benefits.”

She highlighted specific failures with respect to the implementation of the DOJ’s Smart on Crime initiative and clemency initiative. Smart on Crime was intended to reduce the federal prison population through more nuanced prosecutorial decision-making and the elimination of unfair sentencing disparities. However, the DOJ has not implemented any system to measure the performance of the initiative; as such, it was difficult to know whether Smart on Crime was effective. The discussion may well be academic at this time, however, because the initiative was rescinded in May 2017 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. [See: PLN, March 2018, p.28].

The GAO’s review of the clemency initiative resulted in similar findings. The goal of that program was to “encourage[] nonviolent, low-level federal offenders to petition to have their sentences commuted, or reduced, by the President.” However, the GAO found the Department of Justice had no idea how well the initiative was working. Since taking office in January 2017, President Trump has issued one commutation and three pardons.

Maurer also reported on the BOP’s failure to implement procedures to measure recidivism rates of federal prisoners placed in Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs) or on home confinement. While she said the BOP has finally begun to understand how much it is paying for those services, as well as how many prisoners are placed in RRCs or on home confinement, it has no method for evaluating the outcome of RRC programs. The BOP does not measure, and therefore cannot know, whether and by how much RRC placement affects recidivism rates.

The GAO recommended the obvious: Since prison population reduction initiatives are designed to reduce prison populations, and reentry initiatives are designed to reduce recidivism, DOJ officials should be tracking whether either of those goals are actually being met, and if so, to what extent. 



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