Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What the Sequester Means for the BOP

Sequester, sequester, sequester. It's all over the news and all anybody can seem to talk about.

It also may impact the federal Bureau of Prisons, as this letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) explains and this article from Forbes' Walter Pavlo summarizes.

Here are the cuts, from Attorney General Holder's letter, with some of our thoughts interjected:
The sequestration would cut $338 million from BOP’s current budget. BOP would face a furlough of nearly 36,700 onboard staff for an average of 12 days, plus curtailment of future hiring, if sequestration occurs. This equates to about a 5 percent reduction in onboard staff levels and would endanger the safety of staff and over 218,000 inmates. As a consequence, BOP would need to implement full or partial lockdowns and significantly reduce inmate reentry and training programs. This would leave inmates idle, increasing the likelihood of inmate misconduct, violence, and other risks to correctional workers and inmates. Further, limiting or eliminating inmate programs such as drug treatment and vocational education would, in fact, lead to higher costs to taxpayers and communities in the long run as the lack of such inmate re-entry training makes it less likely that released inmates will be successful at reintegration into society upon their release.
Thought 1:   The solution here isn't a bigger prison budget, but a smaller prison population. And for that, we need sentencing reform.  Mandatory minimum sentences have stuffed the Bureau of Prisons with nearly 40 percent too many prisoners.  If we got rid of mandatory minimum sentences, we'd see the prison population (and federal prison budget) shrink.
Further, BOP would slow the ongoing activations of new prisons that have completed construction during the last few years (FCI Berlin, NH, and FCI Aliceville, AL). BOP would not begin the FY 2013 planned activations of FCI Hazelton, WV, or USP Yazoo City, MS. BOP would still incur costs to secure and maintain these prisons, along with the prison in Thomson, IL. These five prisons represent over 8,100 beds that BOP would not be able to utilize fully at a time when our prisons are filled over rated capacity. In addition, the communities surrounding the prisons would not benefit from the significant economic activity that a prison engenders. We estimate that sequestration will mean over 3,800 fewer jobs related to the prison activations that would be foregone (including an estimated 1,500 private sector jobs).
Thought 2:  Do we really want prison expansion to be an area of job growth?  Seriously?  Politicians may want to brag about job creation, but it shouldn't be in this area.
I am acutely concerned about staff and inmate safety should cuts of the sequestration’s magnitude hit BOP. To be blunt, sequestration means less money, not fewer inmates. We would still have the same number of inmates – over 218,000 – after sequestration as before. This kind of dangerous situation is exactly why sequestration needs to be avoided and sensible, balanced deficit reductions achieved. While I plan to take every available step within my authority to aid BOP should sequestration happen, these steps cannot mitigate the severity of every cut faced by BOP.
Thought 3:  Avoiding sequestration does nothing to solve the real problem:  too many federal prisoners serving too many mandatory minimum sentences.

Sentencing reform is the real money-saver and budget-cutter. It's the solution the Administration should be supporting.

Molly M. Gill
Government Affairs Counsel, FAMM


Cameron Blazer said...

If Congress is serious about cutting spending, and if it meant what it said in the preamble to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, it can a) change the amount of good time credit allowable to prisoners serving sentences for non-violent drug offenses and b) direct the BOP to use a formula for awarding good time credit that honors the spirit of the law.

Cameron Blazer said...

If Congress is serious about cutting the budget and meant what it said in the preamble of the Fair Sentencing Act, it should amend 18 USC 3624 to allow for 146 days of good time credit to be earned each year for prisoners serving sentences for non-violent drug convictions. It should, further, direct the Bureau of Prisons to use a sentencing formula that gives effect to the spirit of the good time credit laws. Two guesses as to how likely this is to happen.