The United States Sentencing Commission annually accepts public comments concerning its proposed priorities for the upcoming amendment year. Many organizations, such as the Commission’s Practitioners’ Advisory Group, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Federal Public and Community Defenders and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, regularly submit comments. So too does the Department of Justice (DOJ). From the DOJ’s most recent submission comes this:
The question our country faces today is how can we continue to build on our success in combating crime and ensuring the fair and effective administration of justice in a time of limited criminal justice resources at all levels of government? In other words, how will the country ensure sufficient investments in public safety, and how will those involved in crime policy ensure that every dollar invested in public safety is spent in the most productive way possible?
With declining public safety budgets, our ability to increase the productivity of public safety spending of all kinds will largely determine whether we build on the reductions in crime we’ve experienced over the last twenty years or whether we see setbacks. Our federal, state, and local governments are making decisions now that could have significant effects on the nation’s justice system for years to come.
These budgetary dynamics have serious ramifications for the federal criminal justice system and in particular for the federal sentencing and corrections system. Our goals for federal sentencing and corrections policy have been quite clear for the last several years. As Attorney General Holder has said, we must “create a sentencing and corrections system that protects the public, is fair to both victims and defendants, eliminates unwarranted sentencing disparities, reduces recidivism, and controls the federal prison population.” With these goals as our guide, we believe that federal sentencing and corrections policy today faces serious challenges, especially around the need to control federal prison spending. We must ensure that our federal sentencing and corrections system is strong but smart; credible, productive and just; and budgetarily sound.
Our budget outlook demands a more exacting accounting and deployment of federal criminal justice resources, including federal sentencing and corrections resources. The federal prison system is a product of federal sentencing in its size and scope. And as we said in our report to the Commission last year, prisons are essential for public safety. But maximizing public safety can be achieved without maximizing prison spending. In an era of governmental austerity, maximizing public safety can only be achieved by finding a proper balance of outlays that allows, on the one hand, for sufficient numbers of police, investigative agents, prosecutors and judicial personnel to investigate, apprehend, prosecute and adjudicate those who commit federal crimes, and on the other hand, a sentencing policy that achieves public safety correctional goals and justice for victims, the community, and the offender. The federal prison population – and prison expenditures —have been increasing for years. In this period of austerity, these increases are incompatible with a balanced crime policy and are unsustainable.
Given the budgetary environment, the current trajectory of corrections spending will lead to further imbalances in the deployment of justice resources. While this is a long-term problem that requires a systemic solution, there are also immediate concerns. The Bureau of Prisons is currently operating at 38% over rated capacity. This is of special concern at the prisons housing the most serious offenders, with 53% crowding at high-security facilities and 49% at medium security facilities. This level of crowding puts correctional officers and inmates alike at greater risk of harm and makes recidivism reduction far more difficult. And as we indicated last year, the Department’s Inspector General indicated that the Bureau of Prisons must contend not only with a growing inmate population, but also with aging facilities, higher inmate-to-staff ratios, and many other challenges, including the need to provide jobs and training programs for inmates while they are incarcerated.[…]
There can be little doubt that the criminal justice investments and reforms of the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s — including the SRA — achieved remarkable results over the last two decades. Dramatically lower crime rates have meant tens of millions fewer victims of crime, a fact that is too often overlooked in the discussion about sentencing and corrections policy. However, this achievement came at a high economic and human price, including the incarceration of over two million Americans. Today, we face real criminal justice challenges, especially around decreasing investments in public safety. We must work together to find solutions to these challenges and forge policies that will continue to increase public safety while reducing the costs to our country and our citizens.
DOJ acknowledgment of the impact of “tough on crime” sentencing policy and the propriety of reducing corrections spending is encouraging. More so is an NPR report that in a speech to “the National District Attorneys Association, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer called on Congress to pass two proposals that would speed up the release dates for well-behaved inmates. The first plan would allow prisoners who take part in educational programs proven to reduce recidivism rates to earn up to two months a year in extra credit toward the completion of their sentence. The second would allow prisoners to collect an extra seven days a year of good time credit, from the current 47 days to a new ceiling of 54 days,” thereby permitting revision of the BOP’s application of 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b)(which the Supreme Court affirmed in Barber v. Thomas, 130 S.Ct. 2499 (2010)). Breuer added: “A criminal justice system that spends disproportionately on prisons, at the expense of policing, prosecutions, and recidivism-reducing programs, is unlikely to be maximizing public safety[.]” The full text of Breuer’s prepared remarks can be found here.