What are the biggest challenges facing the Department of Justice in 2017? Michael Horowitz, the DOJ’s inspector general, gave his views on that question late last year, in a report titled Top Management and Performance Challenges Facing the Department of Justice, released on Nov. 11.

Required annually by law, the report does not break new ground, but instead compiles investigations done and reports made by the DOJ inspector general’s office over the past year. It also at least partially reflects priorities and positions at the DOJ during the final year of the Obama administration.

Managing a still-overcrowded federal prison system is the third of nine areas the IG report identifies as needing improvement this year. Only two other areas — safeguarding national security while protecting privacy and civil liberties, and addressing growing cybersecurity threats – are discussed earlier.

Horowitz’s report notes three successive annual declines in federal inmate totals, but admits overcrowding is still a problem for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), with its institutions overall at 16 percent above rated capacity. Even worse, though, is the 31 percent overcrowding rate at high-security facilities, where over 90 percent of inmates have violent histories.

At the same time, the report observes, despite fewer inmates (with different, often more costly needs) over the past two decades, BOP has steadily consumed a growing share of DOJ’s budget — now over 25 percent, second only to the FBI — presenting what the IG’s report describes as a “multifaceted crisis” and making innovative, cost-effective management imperative.

Recommendations in the report for improving BOP management include containing medical care costs — it noted BOP is the only federal agency lacking a legal provision limiting reimbursement rates to those used for Medicare — and improving medical staff recruitment. In its discussion of making best use of available data, the report notes BOP tracks how much it pays out for the incentives it uses to attract medical staff, but fails to assess which of them work best for its hardest-to-fill openings.

The report pointedly faults BOP management’s failure to use or even collect data on recidivism rates for federal prisoners after they’re released, on which BOP has not released statistics in over 20 years. As a result, it acidly observes, BOP “cannot determine with much accuracy” if the federal prison system is meeting its goals of rehabilitating inmates and deterring further offenses, much less which of its programs and re-entry approaches are most effective, if it ever decides on how to measure effectiveness for re-entry facilities. The IG’s report adds BOP says it plans to work on that this year, though.

Those aren’t the only lapses by BOP or DOJ identified in the report, which also points to unsystematic searches of staff entries to deter contraband smuggling, inconsistent methods to count contraband seizures, and inadequate tracking of weaponry stored in BOP armories.

It also notes some BOP programs deserve wider usage or may need greater help from other parts of DOJ to succeed. For instance, it noted federal prosecutors make widely disparate use of pretrial and alternative diversion programs, and DOJ doesn’t keep track. BOP thus far has made little use of a Congressionally-approved program to transfer foreign inmates to jails in their home nations.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

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).