Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Taxpayers, Economy and Society Benefit from Prison Reform

According to the U.S. Attorney General's Office in a recent article in "Business Insider," the sequestration could result in a major budget cut to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to the tune of approximately $338 million.

Representatives from the Department of Justice said that they are "acutely concerned" about inmate and staff safety, a sentiment echoed by Attorney General Eric Holder, who said that these cuts could endanger the lives of staff and inmates in the federal prison system.

The recent murder of federal correction officer Eric Williams at the U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan, a high security prison for men, is a vivid reminder of the dangers our nation's correctional staff face daily, but could be worsened by the budget cuts as a result of the sequestration.
In addition to cuts that could jeopardize staff and inmate safety, freezing future hiring  and forcing 36,700 BOP staff to take an average of 12 days unpaid furlough during the remainder of the fiscal year will devastate staff morale to say the least, not to mention the financial burden such actions will have on BOP staff members and their families.

For the past two decades, criminal justice experts around the country, including several former Republican and Democratic attorney's general, state and federal judges and prosecutors, and members of the U.S. Congress have been racking their brains in an attempt to address criminal justice and prison reform.

One thing that has consistently been on the table has been considerations for alternative sentencing for first-time and non-violent offenders, in an attempt to reduce the present federal prison population that has gone from 25,000 in 1980 to more than an estimated 229,300 by this year's end. Another possibility has been to enhance good-time incentives, reward inmates for good behavior, and get them back into society faster, where they can work, pay taxes, take care of their families, and pay their fines and restitutions.

There has never been a better time to muster the courage to address this issue than right now.
The BOP presently allocates 54 days incentivized good-time per year, per inmate, far less than many state prison systems around the country. Enhancing the good time allocation from 54 days a year to 120 or 128 days a year could create nearly $1 billion annual savings to the BOP's staggering $6.6 billion budget. The additional good-time incentives would immediately and substantially reduce inmate overcrowding.  In addition, this would be an added incentive for inmates to comply with institutional rules and regulations, thereby reducing violence, creating safer facilities for staff and inmates alike.

Another possible remedy could be the passing of HR-62, the Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act of 2013, that is presently sitting in the House. The bill was introduced on 3 January 2013, and referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations for review on 25 January 2013.

This bill would require the BOP to change its good time policy to require that prisoners be released if they (1) have served one half or more of their sentence, (2) are age 45 or older, (3) have never been convicted of a crime of violence, and (4) have not engaged in any violation of BOP disciplinary rules involving violent conduct.

The passing of this bill could generate another enormous cost savings to the American tax payer, reduce overcrowding, and also create an incentive for better behavior by the inmate population, which reduces violence, making the facilities safer for inmates and staff.

Lastly, BOP wardens have the statutory authority to recommend up to 12 months halfway house/home detention, in addition to an inmate's present allocation of 54 days a year good time. Historically, maximum halfway house/home detention recommendations have been rare; however, this alone could result in substantial cost savings to the American taxpayer.

These are just a few things that could dramatically and immediately reduce the federal prison population without letting violent offenders back on the streets. Such changes would also create enormous cost savings for the American taxpayer, reduce inmate violence in BOP's higher classification facilities, and generate collateral economic income, by getting these offenders back into society so they can work, pay taxes, take care of their family, and pay their restitutions and fines.
There is no question that criminal justice and prison reform will happen some time in the future, but it must begin today.

We cannot jeopardize the safety and security of the men and women who put their lives on the line day in and day out while staffing and securing our nation's prisons. There are ways to effectively and efficiently cut the BOP's budget without doing so.
The benefit to the American taxpayer and the economy can be enormous. The benefit to society could be immeasurable.

There is no better time to begin addressing this issue than today.

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