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
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. 

What We're Following See More »
IN UNANIMOUS DECISION
SCOTUS Limits State and Local Governments' Ability to Levy Fines
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"The U.S. Supreme Court curbed the power of cities and states to levy fines and seize property, siding with a man trying to keep his Land Rover after he pleaded guilty to selling drugs. The unanimous ruling marks the first time the court has said that states and cities are bound by the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines, part of the Eighth Amendment."

Source:
AFTER U.S. WITHDRAWS FROM INF TREATY
Putin Threatens Arms Race
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Moscow will match any U.S. move to deploy new nuclear missiles closer to Russia by stationing its own missiles closer to the United States or by deploying faster missiles or both, President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday. Putin said Russia was not seeking confrontation and would not take the first step to deploy missiles in response to Washington’s decision this month to quit a landmark Cold War-era arms control treaty."

Source:
MAY 26-28
Trump to Visit Japan
3 hours ago
THE LATEST
AVOIDS SHUTDOWN WITH A FEW HOURS TO SPARE
Trump Signs Border Deal
4 days ago
THE LATEST

"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

Source:
REDIRECTS $8 BILLION
Trump Declares National Emergency
5 days ago
THE DETAILS

"President Donald Trump on Friday declared a state of emergency on the southern border and immediately direct $8 billion to construct or repair as many as 234 miles of a border barrier. The move — which is sure to invite vigorous legal challenges from activists and government officials — comes after Trump failed to get the $5.7 billion he was seeking from lawmakers. Instead, Trump agreed to sign a deal that included just $1.375 for border security."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login