U.S. Prisons Are a Mess. Congress May Actually Do Something About It.

Inmates in a recreation yard at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif, Jan. 12, 2012.
National Journal
Matt Berman
Add to Briefcase
Matt Berman
Aug. 8, 2013, 7:58 a.m.

Pris­ons in the United States are something of a dis­aster — both in terms of justice and the budget.

Some back­ground:

  • Roughly 1,000 Cali­for­nia in­mates may be re­leased this year be­fore they com­plete their sen­tences be­cause of a court or­der based on severe over­crowding in the state’s pris­ons. At the same time, in Louisi­ana, a fed­er­al judge is look­ing at wheth­er three death-row in­mates were put at risk of ill­ness or death due to high heat at the state pen­it­en­tiary. 
  • In­car­cer­a­tion rates for black Amer­ic­ans dropped from 2000 to 2009, but in 2009 black men were still 6.4 times as likely to be in­car­cer­ated as white men. Black in­mates now ac­count for about 38 per­cent of all in­mates in state and fed­er­al pris­ons, while white in­mates ac­count for 34 per­cent. The United States has the highest in­car­cer­a­tion rate in the world, and the largest in­mate pop­u­la­tion. In 2010, drug of­fend­ers made up 51 per­cent of the fed­er­al pris­on pop­u­la­tion, and the in­crease in time served by drug of­fend­ers ac­coun­ted for a third of the total fed­er­al pris­on pop­u­la­tion growth from 1998 to 2010.
  • There are 2.3 mil­lion in­mates in the U.S., at a cost of $55 bil­lion a year to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Some 218,000 in­mates are in fed­er­al pris­ons, with an av­er­age min­im­um-se­cur­ity cost of $21,000 an­nu­ally. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ques­ted $6.9 bil­lion for the Bur­eau of Pris­ons in fisc­al 2013. At the same time, the private pris­on in­dustry has boomed, grow­ing by 1,600 per­cent between 1990 and 2010 and bring­ing in about $3 bil­lion in an­nu­al rev­en­ue.

So, what can be done? Two bi­par­tis­an mem­bers of Con­gress re­cently put for­ward an idea: Change the name of the Bur­eau of Pris­ons to the Bur­eau of Cor­rec­tions.

Those mem­bers — Reps. Jason Chaf­fetz, R-Utah, and Ha­keem Jef­fries, D-N.Y. — in­tro­duced H.R. 2984 just be­fore Au­gust re­cess. In in­tro­du­cing the bill, Chaf­fetz said:

This small change will help the bur­eau re­mem­ber that its mis­sion is not just to house people, but also to re­hab­il­it­ate pris­on­ers such that they are pro­duct­ive mem­bers of so­ci­ety when re­leased.

Jef­fries called it “an im­port­ant step in the right dir­ec­tion to­ward fun­da­ment­ally chan­ging our ap­proach to re­hab­il­it­a­tion and suc­cess­ful reentry in­to so­ci­ety.”

It also, of course, would do little to help pris­on over­crowding, sen­ten­cing laws that are ra­cially im­bal­anced, and the rap­id growth of a private pris­on in­dustry that has been plagued with prob­lems. It also wouldn’t help the huge price tag for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

That’s where the bi­par­tis­an House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee’s Over-Crim­in­al­iz­a­tion Task Force is try­ing to step in. The task force, which was ap­proved by a voice vote in May and began work in June, is au­thor­ized through the end of the year. The group’s goal is “to as­sess our cur­rent fed­er­al crim­in­al stat­utes and make re­com­mend­a­tions for im­prove­ments.” Its stated in­ten­tion is to cut down the es­tim­ated 4,500 fed­er­al crimes in the U.S. code.

The task force has already gen­er­ated some bi­par­tis­an praise. An Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on spokes­man said, “The task force has a unique op­por­tun­ity for mean­ing­ful re­form of our fed­er­al crim­in­al sys­tem” and that the ACLU hopes “it pri­or­it­izes restor­ing fair­ness to the crim­in­al justice sys­tem.” The con­ser­vat­ive Her­it­age Found­a­tion called the task force “a def­in­ite step in the right dir­ec­tion.”

And the task force isn’t the only mean­ing­ful con­gres­sion­al activ­ity. In March, Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion that would give judges more dis­cre­tion in sen­ten­cing fed­er­al crimes. A ver­sion of that bill is also un­der con­sid­er­a­tion in the House. Out­side of Con­gress, the Justice De­part­ment pushed for sen­ten­cing re­form in a Ju­ly let­ter to the U.S. Sen­ten­cing Com­mis­sion.

It, of course, re­mains to be seen wheth­er Con­gress will ac­tu­ally be able to get any­thing ac­com­plished. And this Con­gress has a par­tic­u­larly lousy track re­cord on that count. But with the crim­in­al justice sys­tem nearly tear­ing apart at its seams, there ap­pears to be real, bi­par­tis­an en­ergy be­hind ac­tu­ally get­ting something done. Even if it’s just chan­ging a name. 

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