Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Task Force Recommends How to Cut US Prisoner Count by 60,000

By on January 26, 2016

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department should limit the types of cases it brings and more nonviolent criminals should be steered toward probation and away from prison, according to task force recommendations designed to cut the federal inmate count and save more than $5 billion.

The suggestions were released Tuesday amid a national dialogue across the federal government about overhauling the country’s criminal justice system, which critics say is overly expensive and has resulted in unduly long sentences for nonviolent drug criminals. A bipartisan effort to cut the prison population appears stalled for the moment in Congress, though the White House and Justice Department have encouraged changes in how suspects are prosecuted and sentenced at the federal level.

The recommendations from the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections provide concrete steps prosecutors, judges, prison officials and policymakers can take to reduce prison overcrowding and ease spending on a corrections system that’s swelled in the last three decades as a result of harsh mandatory minimum sentences imposed on thousands of drug criminals.

“From severe overcrowding to an insufficient array of effective programs and incentives to encourage behavioral change, the system is failing those it incarcerates and the taxpayers who fund it,” J.C. Watts Jr., a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma and task force chairman, said in announcing the findings.

The nine-member task force, created by Congress in 2014, described the criminal justice system as in crisis. The group said that if its six recommendations were implemented, the federal prison population could drop by 60,000 by fiscal year 2024. More than 196,000 convicts are in Bureau of Prisons custody.

Taken together, the recommendations call for prison to be used sparingly as a punishment and for prosecutors and judges to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

The proposals cut across the criminal justice system, calling for Congress to repeal mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses – except for drug kingpins – and for judges to have more discretion to impose shorter sentences, including probation and drug court instead of prison for nonviolent crimes.

The panel placed particular blame on drug mandatory minimum sentences, which became popular in the 1980s and typically dictate rigid punishments based on drug quantity, as driving a rapid spike in the prison population. Roughly half of federal inmates are there for drug crimes. But nearly 80 percent of drug crime prisoners have no serious history of violence, and more than half had no violent history at all, the panel said.

“This task force has arrived at the conclusion that mandatory minimum sentences, particularly those for drug and weapons offenses, have imposed a one-size-fits-all sentencing model that does not serve the interests of public safety,” said task force vice chair Alan Mollohan, a former Democratic congressman from West Virginia.

In addition, the task force said judges should be encouraged to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences for certain weapons offenses, such as cases in which the firearm was never brandished or fired.

It also recommended that the Justice Department limit the types of cases that it brings and ensure that “only the most serious cases” that require specific expertise are prosecuted at the federal level. But the panel acknowledged that matters including white-collar crime, national security, immigration and drug trafficking would continue to fall to the Justice Department.

The task force also urged the Bureau of Prisons to encourage participation in programs designed to prevent inmates from reoffending, including through incentives such as earned time credit. And it said the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets sentencing policy, should promote broader use of probation for non-violent crimes.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the recommendations important in an appearance Tuesday in New Orleans.

“The swelling number of inmates has maxed out our facilities, jeopardized our rehabilitation efforts and made it harder for correctional officers to safely and effectively do their jobs – which are already among the most difficult in law enforcement,” Lynch said.

Some of the actions, such as an overhaul of mandatory minimum penalties, would require Congress to act – likely a longshot in an atmosphere in which a bipartisan effort to change the criminal justice system is in jeopardy.

But other steps, such as encouraging shorter sentences for nonviolent drug criminals, are in keeping with recent policy directives the Justice Department has issued. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, for instance, directed prosecutors to limit their use of mandatory minimum penalties as part of his 2013 Smart on Crime initiative.

President Barack Obama has been willing to consider criminal justice revisions under his own authority, announcing on Monday night a ban on housing juvenile offenders in solitary confinement at the federal level.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login