By Christopher Zoukis
In 1980 the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had a budget of about $330 million and housed around 25,000 federal inmates. The number certainly wasn’t small, but it was manageable. In the last 30 years this population has exploded: federal prisoners now number in excess of 219,000, which accounts for the 39% average overcrowding of federal prisons, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons has an annual operating budget of $6.6 billion. With virtually all of these prisoners barred from parole eligibility, many will be there for the long haul as will the several billion dollar budget.
According to the Bureau’s former director, Harley Lappin, speaking at a 2011 United States Sentencing Commission hearing, the Bureau of Prisons releases around 45,000 federal inmates each year. FedCURE, a non-profit prison advocacy organization which focuses their efforts on the federal prison system, says this number is closer to 60,000 each year. Whether the number is 45,000 or 60,000, the figures are staggering. Lappin also stated that the Bureau of Prisons was slated to add 11,500 net inmates in 2013. These are huge increases to the federal incarcerated population.
With billions upon billions of dollars being squandered every year on a broken system of criminal justice, the question then becomes, how do we reduce the costs of the Federal Bureau of Prisons? The short, and fairly simple answer, is to reduce the number of federal inmates we incarcerate.
Unfortunately, there is a widespread public perception that federal prisoners are, by and large, a dangerous breed. In fact, though, most are not, by any measure. Forbes.com reports, “56.2% of federal inmates are categorized as low or minimum security . . . [and] over 40,000 [federal] inmates are categorized as community custody, which means they can, and do, work outside of the prison.” These most certainly aren’t violent offenders. They work in our communities without incident; they are housed in federal prison camps or low security federal prisons which don’t even have fences or razor wire; and the majority of them are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses.
As United States Attorney General Eric Holder remarked at a recent National Action Network meeting in New York, “It is time to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our criminal justice system. Statutes passed by legislatures that mandate sentences, irrespective of the unique facts of an individual case, too often have no relation to the conduct at issue, breed disrespect for the system, and are ultimately counterproductive. It is time to examine our systems and determine what truly works. We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to rehabilitate, and to deter, and not simply to warehouse and forget.”
FedCURE says they have part of the answer. In a recent email from Jack Donson, FedCURE’s Director of Programs and Case Management, he states, “FedCURE is calling on the President and Members of Congress to enact the BARBER AMENDMENT — a proposed bill to increase federal good [conduct] time allowances – that would safely reduce the federal prison population by at least 10%[.]” Other sources estimate higher reductions. Donson’s recommendation is to increase the amount of time federal inmates receive off their sentences for good behavior. Currently, federal inmates statutorily receive 54 days of good conduct time for each year served.
The Barber Amendment would revise Title 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b)(1) as follows:
~The existing 54 days of applicable good conduct time a year would be increased to 128 days of applicable good conduct time. This would increase the number of days federal inmates receive off their sentence each year for good conduct.
~The phrase “prisoner’s term of imprisonment” would be struck and “term of sentence imposed” would be inserted in its place. This would base the amount of applicable good conduct time on the sentence imposed, not the specific number of days the inmate spends in prison (which is reduced because of the applicable good conduct time awarded for good behavior). In effect, this would do away with the BOP’s arbitrary computation discretion which reduces the current 54 days of good conduct time down to 49 days. It would also make the computation more cut-and-dried.
~The Amendment would be retroactive. This means that anyone incarcerated within the Federal Bureau of Prisons would not only receive the additional good conduct time now and in the future, but would have additional good conduct time added for the time they have already served. This would only be for periods of time in which they qualified for full application of existing good conduct time.
According to Donson, if Congress were to pass the Barber Amendment, at least 10% of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ inmate population could be reduced. This reduction would result in “a cost savings of $1.2 billion dollars annually,” funds which then could be “redirected (within the Bureau’s budget) to reentry.” (The Government Accountability Office pegs a 10% federal inmate reduction to a savings of $660 million a year). These substantial funds could be put to very good use in educational, rehabilitative, and reentry programs. FedCURE’s hope is to bring this bill to the Senate floor for a vote in the 113th Congress.
The Congressional Research Service recently released a report entitled “The Federal Prison Population Buildup: Overview, Policy Changes, Issues, and Options” which offers agreement that something needs to be done concerning the staggering increase in the federal prison population. Criticizing the “historically unprecedented increase in the federal prison population” the report suggests “changing or reversing some of the policies that have been put into place over the years which contributed to the increasing number of federal prison inmates.” In fact, the Barber Amendment falls clearly within one of the suggested areas for reform: expanding the amount of good conduct time credit an inmate can earn. It would roll back the federal good conduct time allowances to pre-1987 levels.
FedCURE is preparing to mount a full-scale campaign for the Barber Amendment. According to their website, “We are planning a National Organizational SIGN-ON Letter . . . and a National ‘CALL CONGRESS DAY’ . . . for all [interested parties] to call their Congresspersons urging them to support the BARBER AMENDMENT.” They say, “Timing is everything and we have identified several windows of opportunity in the 113th Congress, and we are diligently watching the Hill for opportunities when Congress is best situated and open to listening to us.” For the sake of those ensnared in this nation’s federal criminal justice system, their families and friends, and the American taxpayer, hopefully something will change.
The tide for criminal justice reform is turning. Major players in American’s criminal justice industry are now speaking out against the broken system. It’s not just the social justice side of it; fiscally conservative Republican lawmakers are agitating for smart change, too. As Holder said to the gathering at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network meeting in New York, “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason.” With even the Attorney General of the United States of America admitting the problem, perhaps the time has come for action like the Barber Amendment. Perhaps it is finally time for us to start being smart on crime as opposed to being merely tough on crime.
Sources: Fedcure.org; Forbes.com; Politico.com; Popvox.com; Talkleft.com.