The Growing Federal Prison Crisis

by Rachel Baker on December 17, 2013

The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General just put out the annual report (more like a memo) about Management and performance challenges in the Justice Department. The memo can be found here: http://www.justice.gov/oig/challenges/2013.htm

Over at the Atlantic, there’s an article based on a conversation by the journalist and the inspector general, Michael Horowitz. It, too, is worth reading.

The first part of the prison crisis is financial and the math behind it is relatively simple: the number of federal inmates has increased dramatically over the past few years while the government funding available to safely house those federal inmates has decreased. “It’s a zero sum game,” Horowitz says. “Every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar that is going to come from somewhere else in the Department. That forces leadership to look hard at what tools it has.”

From the report:

After enjoying an increase in its discretionary budget from $21.5 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2001 to $28.9 billion in FY 2011, the Department’s discretionary budget decreased in FY 2012 to $28.3 billion, and by 10 percent in FY 2013 to $25.5 billion. During this same period, the prison population in the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) facilities grew from about 157,000 inmates in FY 2001 to about 219,000 inmates presently.

The second component of the federal prison crisis is the lack of workable ideas offered up so far to ease the crisis by reforming the system. Remember when we all were so encouraged back in August after Attorney General Eric Holder announced a series of sentencing reforms he said would safely decrease the federal prison population? Well, Horowitz and company at the OIG don’t seem to think much of that plan, at least this part as presently constituted. From the report:

[T]his policy change is unlikely to have a significant short-term impact on prison costs because defendants who qualify for this relief are still likely to face some period of incarceration for their crimes. Whether the policy change will have a material long-term impact on prison costs remains to be seen since many of these same defendants, if they had been subjected to a mandatory minimum charge, might have qualified for the mandatory minimum “safety valve” that Congress created in 1994.

The third component of the crisis in our federal prisons is simply one of poor management. The Bureau of Prisons, and thus the Justice Department, are not adequately “managing and leveraging” existing programs, the report candidly concludes. For example, federal officials are not efficiently addressing the “increasing number of elderly inmates” within the system:

From FY 2010 to FY 2013, the population of inmates over the age of 65 in BOP-managed facilities increased by 31 percent, from 2,708 to 3,555, while the population of inmates 30 or younger decreased by 12 percent, from 40,570 to 35,783. This demographic trend has significant budgetary implications for the Department because older inmates have higher medical costs.

Read More of the article here:
http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/12/government-watchdog-we-have-a-growing-federal-prison-crisis/282341/

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