Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing titled “Rising Prison Costs: Restricting Budgets and Crime Prevention Options.” The federal prison system, run by the Bureau of Prisons, is in need of reform.  Its ever-increasing budget and poor results (measured by recidivism rates), triggered this Congressional review. The BOP budget has also begun to crowd out other important Department of Justice functions.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Senator Mike Lee (R- Utah) were particularly active questioners. Both Leahy and Lee seemed deeply interested in exploring alternatives to incarceration and recidivism-reducing programs. Senator Grassley (R-Iowa) asked a few questions, mostly centered around his concern with the adoption of unproven alternatives to incarceration. Three witnesses testified at the hearing.

The first witness to take the floor, Edward Davis, has been Boston’s Police Commissioner since 2006. Much of his testimony focused on the ineffectiveness of mass incarceration as a solution to drug abuse. “From a criminal justice standpoint, I believe that arresting our way out of [the drug abuse] problem is not the solution. Addiction and profit are huge motivating factors, making the threat of long-term incarceration alone not enough to prevent recidivism.”

Commissioner Davis cited programs such as drug courts and Hawaii’s HOPE Court, which are more efficient and effective responses to drug abuse problems, as preferable alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent drug offenders. He called for comprehensive corrections reform, which would focus on a balanced approach of treatment and targeting recidivism for low-level drug offenders. This would free up more resources for fighting other crimes, particularly violent crime, through proven programs such as Operation Ceasefire.

Dr. Jeffrey Sedgwick, a former director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, provided more circumspect testimony, suggesting that one possible reason for the US’s chart-topping incarceration rate is that we simply have more violent crime than other developed countries. He correctly stressed the need to carefully research any potential reform, and to review the reform after it has been implemented. As with any government program, transparency and performance measures are critical to ensure that policymakers are held accountable for their results.

Finally, Brett Tolman, a former U.S. Attorney testified about the inadequacy of the current one-size-fits all approach to early release through good-time credits. The status quo, he argued, is fiscally unsustainable, a danger to public safety, and a threat to the integrity of the DOJ: “Over the last dozen years, Congress and the Department of Justice have been so focused on prosecuting and punishing crime, emphasizing zero tolerance and tough federal sentences, that there has been an absolute failure to recognize that without an equal focus on recidivism reduction, the tough sentencing laws of the federal criminal justice system may well be the downfall of a once proud and effective agency.”

Tolman sees Texas as a shining example of the better approach, citing its focus on diversion and treatment, which ultimately led to “an unprecedented decrease in recidivism, a savings of nearly $2 billion,” and the establishment of a model for the federal system. As opposed to the current one-size-fits-all approach, categorizing inmates according to the risk of recidivism, and allowing earned time through the completion of recidivism reduction programs, “will result in [a] decrease in crime rates, [a] decrease in recidivism, and an increase in budget flexibility for prosecutors.”

After the testimony, there was an extended period for questions and answers. The hearing is available online here, under the week of August 1, 2012.