A recent report from the Department of Justice (DOJ) federal watchdog says mistakes resulted in incorrect amounts of prison time being served by more than 4,000 federal prisoners during the six years between 2009 and 2014.

The 41-page report, “Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Untimely Releases of Inmates,” issued on May 24, examined around 462,000 federal prisoner releases during those six years and found the actual time served in almost 4,200 instances differed from what it should have been.

The inspector general’s report notes that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) attributes most of the cases of incorrect time served to mistakes or changes made by persons other than its own staff. It gives the example of a judge’s retroactive reduction of an inmate’s sentence to a duration less than the time the prisoner had already served. It also notes inaccurate information sometimes follows inmates when transferred from state prisons or jails (confusing or erroneous information from courts or state officials was by far the most common source of errors, according to the BOP.)

But in 157 instances, the report also notes, mistakes made by Bureau of Prisons personnel caused federal inmates to be incarcerated for greater or shorter amounts of time than called for by their sentences. In nearly all of these cases (152), the mistake resulted in inmates being incarcerated for too long. Among the five federal inmates who got out too early, one was released over 30 months earlier than called for by his sentence.

The most extreme overlong incarceration case due to a BOP mistake saw an inmate serve over three years too long; two others remained behind bars for over a year more than required. For 58 other inmates, their release was delayed by more than a month beyond when it should have happened.

Michael Horowitz, DOJ’s inspector general, called delayed release “unjust” and noted “serious civil liberties concerns.” At the other extreme, he added, premature prisoner releases pose risks for communities.

Mistakes in calculating the correct prison term can prove costly to taxpayers. The IG’s report estimated incarcerating just the 152 federal inmates not released on time after their proper release dates cost over $660,000. That doesn’t include another $680,000 paid out to settle lawsuits brought by four inmates released later than they should have been.

The IG’s report pointed to several defects in the current process for calculating proper sentence length (which may involve determining time credited for good behavior or properly interpreting an inmate’s original sentence or subsequent changes.) While the BOP called it misleading to treat as overdue releases the thousands of cases in which the agency disclaimed responsibility for errors, prison officials also told investigators for the IG there was insufficient data to identify why the lapses had occurred.

The IG report further faulted both the Department of Justice and the BOP for not having tried to work with other agencies to identify causes of the problem and to find solutions. Perhaps as a consequence, Justice officials said they didn’t now know whether similar problems could be prevented in the future. The inspector general’s report ended by recommending seven steps Justice and the BOP could take to probe the root causes of the problem and ways to address it.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).