Since the 1980’s, the federal prison system has undergone a herculean expansion. While in 1980, the population was pegged at a manageable–in today’s terms–24,000, recent counts have the population at over 207,000. In other words, in the space of 35 years, the prison population has increased by over 762%, while the U.S. population has only increased by just over 40% during the same period.
With this huge increase in population has come the concomitant swelling of corrections costs necessary to handle it. The Justice Department’s inspector general said in a 2013 performance report that these costs are “unsustainable” and are squeezing out spending for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, federal prosecutors, counterterrorism agencies, and other crime-fighting efforts.
Our increased use of incarcerating prisoners, and associated costs of doing so would, in one sense, be defensible if the public were experiencing noticeable benefits thereof, but evidence suggests otherwise: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, half of the prisoners released this year are expected to be back in prison within three years. Interested parties across the country are rapidly coming to the realization that such a high recidivism rate can’t be defended at all.
Taxpayers are shouldering the burdens of funding a burgeoning corrections system that isn’t delivering meaningful results, either in terms of cost-effectiveness or, most importantly, public safety.
New federal legislation being rolled out seeks to change this. Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) have teamed up to sponsor a comprehensive overhaul of the federal system. There has been rapidly growing, bipartisan support–in Congress and nationally–for the sort of reforms found in their bill.
The SAFE Justice Act stitches together some of the best reform ideas that have surfaced in Congress over the last few years. It addresses our ballooning criminal code; reserves costly prison beds for dangerous and serious criminals, strengthens the probation system, and establishes programs such as drug courts–like those found in Texas and other states–and mental health services that have been proven to be effective at reducing recidivism.
An important aspect of this bill is its recognition that prisons do indeed serve a role in the justice system: they effectively sequester dangerous and/or serially offending criminals from society. However, there is such thing as overusing them, particularly when housing lower-risk, non-violent offenders in the same population. This risks inculcating them into a culture of criminality often found among more hardened inmates which, in turn, makes them more of a threat to the public safety when released than when they first were imprisoned. For obvious reasons, this is problematic.
In response, this legislation would draw on positive results realized by states–Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina, and more–who have encountered this issue before. Lawmakers there have focused prison space on serious, violent offenders, strengthened community supervision practices, and used alternative sanctions to deal with certain nonviolent offenders outside prison walls – alternatives that have been proven to prevent future crime. In Texas, these practices contributed to an incarceration rate that fell 10% between 2008 and 2013, and a crime rate that fell by 18% during the same period.
Lowering both rates, while saving taxpayer money and preserving public safety, is entirely possible.
This legislation also recognizes the significant benefit of faith-based volunteers. It encourages faith-based and community groups to work with inmates to teach them the importance of developing job skills, seeking reconciliation with family, making moral decisions, and mentoring to help offenders think through the decisions that confront them when they leave prison.
The states have shown us the way towards curtailing over-criminalization, better holding offenders accountable, and promoting the safety of citizens. It’s time for reform at the federal level.