In a press conference today, members of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections released a report detailing the findings of their year-long effort to identify the main drivers of federal corrections growth, and have recommended many broad reforms that states have adopted recently.
Over the course of the last ten years, states have confronted a stark realization that previous decade’s worth of largely unrestrained growth in their corrections systems has become unsustainable. Not only were states lacking a return on their investment in terms of public safety—evidenced in part by stubbornly high recidivism rates—but, in pure dollar terms, their corrections expenditures have often times been the second fastest-growing area of their respective budgets (behind Medicaid).
Many states have now re-considered their previous “tough on crime” approach—which was, admittedly, an understandable reaction to the high crime rates of the 60’s and 70’s, but has nonetheless led to explosive prison growth—and instead have shifted to a more individualized, evidence-based model that prioritizes resources, seeks alternatives to incarceration, and saves taxpayers money responsibly.
For example, due to growth in its prison population that threatened to necessitate an increase of 17,000 beds—at a cost of billions—Texas legislators instead made a smaller investment in drug courts, increased the use of probation and parole, and instituted swift and certain sanctions for violations of terms of offender’s release, among other reforms. As a result, recidivism has fallen, the state has saved or deferred roughly $3 billion in spending, and Texas’ crime rate is the lowest it has been since 1968. Other conservative states have followed suit with “justice reinvestment” models of their own, and enjoyed similar successes.
Slow to realize the benefits of a more nimble, effective criminal justice system, however, has been the federal system. With a current prison population of 196,352, the Bureau of Prisons constitutes the largest in the nation. Since 1980, the federal corrections system has seen massive growth not just in its population—a roughly seven fold increase, well outstripping general population growth—but also currently consumes a quarter of the Department of Justice’s budget, squeezing out other important law enforcement functions of that agency. Public safety hasn’t improved as a result, either—four in ten offenders are re-arrested within three years of initial release.
Enter the Colson Task Force. Named for Chuck Colson, who was an early signatory to Right on Crime and founded the Prison Fellowship Ministries, the task force was charged by Congress in 2014 with a year-long fact-finding mission to identify the main drivers of federal prison population growth—which include, according to the report, mandatory sentencing for drug and weapons charges, as well as abolition of parole and lack of diversionary programs—and has developed six sweeping policy recommendations geared towards improving public safety, increasing accountability, and reducing recidivism. From their report, the federal corrections system should:
- Reserve prison space for those convicted of the most serious federal crimes
- Promote a culture of safety and rehabilitation in accordance with risk-needs evaluations
- Incentivize participation in risk-reduction programming
- Ensure successful reintegration using evidence-based practices in supervision, support
- Enhance performance and accountability through better inter-agency cooperation
- Reinvest savings to support expansion of necessary programs, supervision, and treatment
While demonstrating that the states have enjoyed less crime and incarceration simultaneously, the report concludes with a call to action for Congress, suggesting that momentum is on the side of reform, and that “wise, cost-effective reforms that promote a safer society” are possible.