That's the finding of a powerful new report from the Government Accountability Office and the subject of this column in today's Washington Post.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about mandatory minimum sentencing laws understands why our federal prisons are severely overcrowded, creating dangerous conditions for inmates and guards alike: we are sending too many people to prison for too long. (It also comes at too high a price for taxpayers.) We measure public safety in terms of reductions in crime rates and violence -- but shouldn't reductions in crime and violence within prison walls count, too? If safety inside prisons is one measure of success, mandatory minimum sentences are a failure.
“BOP officials reported increased use of double and triple bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, limited meaningful work opportunities, and increased inmate-to-staff ratios,” the September report says. “These factors, taken together, contribute to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and staff.”
The prison facilities are crowded because the inmate population is growing faster than the bureau’s capacity. As the prison population grew 9.5 percent from 2006 through 2011, the agency’s capacity, increasing at 7 percent, didn’t keep up. Even with new facilities, the prison population grew from 136 percent of capacity to 139 percent, according to the GAO.
“Nearly all BOP facilities had fewer correctional staff on board than needed, with a BOP-wide staffing shortage in excess of 3,200,” the GAO said, citing a 2010 Justice Department study.
While crowding has increased, the inmate-to-staff ratio has gone down. Fewer officers is not a strategy for success. The consequences can be real and bloody.
“Serious correctional worker understaffing and prison inmate overcrowding is causing a significant increase in dangerous inmate-on-worker assaults,” Dale Deshotel, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals, told the House Judiciary Committee in December.For the sake of everyone inside prisons, Congress should consider meaningful, front-end sentencing reforms -- and soon. It can follow the lead of dozens of states around the country who have already seen the folly of endlessly filling prisons. Someone has to decide who needs the hard, harsh time of mandatory minimum sentences and who doesn't, and federal judges have the training and good vantage point to do so. That's why FAMM is supporting more flexibility in federal sentencing laws, through solutions like a broader safety valve, for example. From the column:
Much of this bad news could be better if Uncle Sam had greater flexibility in reducing his prison population. A number of states have done more than the federal government in modifying their sentencing policies.
“Because of the mandatory minimum sentences required for many federal offenses and the absence of parole for most federal inmates in the federal system, BOP generally does not have the authority to significantly adjust an inmate’s period of incarceration,” the GAO said in September. ...
Congress made some progress on reforming drug sentencing laws with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which lessened the severe sentencing discrepancy between federal crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. But the changes were not retroactive, so some offenders remain imprisoned with sentences based on a 100-to-1 disparity in the way crack and powder were treated for sentencing purposes, despite a law that recognizes that fundamental unfairness.
Reforming sentencing laws is one option the GAO listed for addressing crowding, along with allowing alternatives to incarceration, providing greater sentencing flexibility and increasing capacity.
Something needs to happen soon.