In recent years, public awareness of our nation’s overcrowded and inefficient state prisons has grown considerably. But what is often overlooked is this country’s bloated federal prison system, which continues to operate beyond capacity, endangering staff and inmates alike and costing taxpayers nearly $7 billion in fiscal 2014. That’s one-quarter of the Justice Department’s entire budget. Although the federal prison population recently decreased for the first time in more than three decades, we are far from declaring victory.
The severity of the problem requires immediate action, and we must act swiftly and prudently to identify fact-based solutions that will reverse the tide of inmates, eliminate spending on unnecessary incarceration, and ensure that prisoners receive the programming they need to lower their odds of reoffending. To get this done right, we can draw from a growing body of evidence in the states.
In states throughout the country, leaders are coming together across political lines to realize a shared mission: re-envisioning their corrections systems to yield greater public safety while reducing unnecessary confinement.
Instead of growing, Georgia’s prison population is now down by eight percent. The state has saved over $20 million alone in direct payments to the counties for holding state prisoners in local jails. And Texas has cut its parole revocation rate almost in half as a result of reforms.
From these experiences, we now have a strong sense of the formula for impactful reform: bipartisanship, good data, and a dual focus on both public safety and cost savings.
While many Americans bemoan the partisan acrimony and political division in Washington, the climate inside the beltway is ripe for bipartisan prison reform. The Huffington Post labeled federal corrections the “dark horse” of policy reform, and a source of optimism for Republicans and Democrats alike. And a choir of voices spanning the ideological spectrum of the American Civil Liberties Union to the Heritage Foundation are among the many calling for an end to mass incarceration.
Two areas that all agree on are the need for objective data and the benefits of a cultural shift toward evidence-based practice. States that have successfully reformed their prison systems used data to answer longstanding questions about which factors were driving up prison growth and why. This actionable data then shape the appropriate policy responses. Once reforms are implemented, data collection continues, so criminal justice leaders know which policies enhance offender accountability and lead to the best returns on public safety investments.
It is imperative that public safety remain the focal point of this conversation. When we talk about reducing federal spending on incarceration, we’re not advocating for the release of persons who pose a danger to society. But we also know that there are smarter and more cost-effective ways to deal with criminals using programs like drug courts and enhanced supervision. Moreover, federal prisoners should receive programming that helps improve their reentry chances and likelihood of success once they leave incarceration.
We’re pleased to announce that in 2015, we will lead a bipartisan blue-ribbon panel comprised of some of the best minds and most experienced criminal justice practitioners in the country, including state-level reform champions, a former federal prosecutor, judge, defender, and other critical perspectives. Named in honor of Chuck Colson who, after serving time in a federal prison camp for his role in the Watergate incident, made a commitment to support prisoners and their families through the establishment of the world’s largest family of prison ministries, the mission of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections is to examine the challenges faced by our federal Bureau of Prisons and develop practical, data-driven policy responses.
We will begin work in earnest in January 2015 and convene five times over the course of the year, building in opportunities for public comment. At year’s end, we will deliver a consensus report with concrete policy recommendations to Congress, the attorney general, and President Barack Obama.
Overcrowded and costly federal prisons didn’t happen overnight, and there’s no silver bullet policy solution. But with a growing record of successes in the states and a cooperative effort to identify research-driven results, smarter and more cost-effective approaches to criminal justice are within our sights.
J.C. Watts, Jr. is a former Republican U.S. Representative from Oklahoma and Alan Mollohan is a former Democratic U.S. Representative from West Virginia.