Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Feds Feel the Pinch, Too

It's not just the states that are feeling the budget crunch in their corrections departments -- the federal prison system feels it, too.

The Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives had a hearing yesterday to discuss the budget needs of the Department of Justice -- which includes the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).  The BOP is asking Congress for $6.8 billion for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.  With a population of nearly 210,000 and counting, the BOP is notoriously overcrowded (50% over capacity at high security prisons!) and looking for more prison space.  Buying and operating a federal prison in Thomson, Illinois would cost taxpayers at least $304 million, according to this article at Main Justice.  Representative Frank Wolf (R-Va.) isn't too keen on that idea, though:

The DOJ will have to take general-population prisons and renovate them for maximum security inmates if Congress doesn't allow them to use the Thomson facility, [BOP Director Harley] Lappin said.  Without Thomson, he said, prisons will become more crowded.  
Wolf seemed unimpressed.  
The Republican said the Bureau of Prisons should devote its energy to reducing recidivism through prison work programs and rehabilitation in addition to working on proposals for early releases.
To the BOP's credit, Lappin and his agency are supporting some proposals, such as increasing annual time off for good behavior by 7 days for each inmate who earns it.  This small change would release 4,000 people in the first year and save $41 million, but it's up to Congress to pass a bill that would get it done.  Lappin's testimony to the Committee also supported more good time credit for prisoners who participate in recidivism-reducing job and educational programs.

Of course, the biggest and best way to cut the BOP's prison population -- and save huge on costs -- would be front-end sentencing reforms.  Get rid of mandatory minimums; provide judges with more discretion in more cases through the creation of "safety valves"; make past reforms (like the Fair Sentencing Act) retroactive.

Well, states, take some comfort in this:  you're not the only ones facing tough questions on balancing budgets, cutting corrections costs, and keeping the public safe.