By Christopher Zoukis
As has been done annually since 1998, in October, the Department of Justice (DOJ) inspector general released a list of what he sees as the leading management and performance challenges confronting the agency in the year ahead. One of the eight areas identified by Inspector General Michael Horowitz was summarized as “Managing an Overcrowded Federal Prison System in an Era of Declining Resources.”
Although the federal inmate population has in fact declined in recent years, the report notes, federal prisons remain 14 percent above their rated capacity; overcrowding is even worse (25 percent) in high-security facilities. The report also notes that projections by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) foresee an approximately 2 percent inmate population increase during the fiscal year 2018 (which began this October); the increase will be due, the report says, to DOJ’s “increased enforcement and prosecution efforts.”
Aging facilities and inmates will also present management challenges, the report adds, especially considering increasing competition for DOJ resources from other identified priorities, such as protecting national security while safeguarding privacy and civil liberties, and attracting skilled professionals to DOJ positions. It also notes the federal prison system has, over the past two decades, “taken an ever-larger share” of DOJ’s overall budget, but remains overcrowded.
Noting the agency’s reversal of an Obama-administration decision to phase out use of privately-run prisons for federal inmates, the inspector general’s report cites several audit results of private prisons with which BOP had contracted as evidence DOJ and BOP both face challenges in supervising such facilities to ensure they meet contracted-for levels of security, staffing and programs. It also notes BOP’s cancellation of appropriated funds for a new prison planned for Kentucky as an example of the type of “tough budget choice” it will face.
While BOP has a $542 million backlog of repair and modernization projects (a 58 percent increase in four years), the report cautions that unplanned emergency repairs – due to events such as tornadoes and the past year’s virulent hurricane season – may affect the agency’s ability to make inroads on the backlog.
Another prison system-related challenge for the year ahead identified by the report is the potential impact that may be felt due to DOJ immigration enforcement and sentencing policies. Last April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced federal prosecutors will be encouraged to charge the most serious, readily provable offense for immigration-related offenses, and prosecutors also received a similar, even broader such mandate the following month. Since that translate into greater charges of crimes bringing mandatory minimum sentences, DOJ needs to carefully monitor the practical effects of these policies, as well as evaluate the availability and cost of detention facilities, especially those housing foreign detainees.
Finally, DOJ needs to increase its evaluation of how well programs designed to reduce inmate population and recidivism work in practice. The report notes DOJ hasn’t acted on an IG recommendation in May 2015 to consider greater use of compassionate relief, and international transfers of non-native inmates fell this year.
It also cites several earlier reports on BOP oversight lapses on residential re-entry centers, and says DOJ could benefit by working on measuring the outcomes from sentencing alternatives such as pretrial diversion programs, as well as their impact on the costs of prosecution and incarceration, and any related recidivism effects.
About Christopher Zoukis
Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at christopherzoukis.com and prisoneducation.com.