America leads the world in incarceration, with an estimated 1.5 million people held in state and federal prisons at the end of 2014. But while both Republicans and Democrats agree that the system needs change — with both parties on board to pass criminal-justice reform this year — the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act foundered in the Senate this summer.
What is the first step the next president should take to reduce the number of incarcerated Americans? Is action through executive power an acceptable route? What other avenues for reform might the next administration explore?
Pat Nolan is director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation. He was Republican leader of the California State Assembly from 1984 to 1988.
The first priority of government is to keep our people safe. Violent, dangerous criminals belong in prison, and the cost of incarcerating them is money well spent. But today the net of criminal law ensnares far more than just violent criminals.
Roughly half of federal inmates are drug offenders. The vast majority of these are not “kingpins” — only 14 percent are major traffickers. The rest are small fish, who are expensive to imprison and who are quickly replaced on the street by others looking for a way to support their drug habit. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we are locking up a lot of people we are just mad at.
Luckily, the next president already has the tools to lower recidivism, increase public safety and lower the cost to taxpayers. By learning from policies instituted by states and implementing laws already passed by Congress, we can finally reverse our overuse of incarceration.
The number of federal inmates has jumped from 25,000 in 1980 to 190,000 today. We will spend almost $7 billion on federal prisons this year, with costs increasing each year. The inspector general has said that this level of spending is “unsustainable.”
Fortunately, when confronted by rising prison costs, individual state governments have shown that we can reduce both imprisonment and crime and save a lot of money in the process. They have done it by reserving costly prison beds for violent or career criminals. “Tough-on-crime” Texas, for example, scrapped plans to build more prisons and put much of the savings into drug courts, treatment and mental health services. Since then, the state has cut its inmate population, closed three prison facilities and saved more than $2 billion. Most importantly, violent crime rates in Texas are lower than they’ve been since 1968.
How can the next administration follow the example of the states to lower the inmate population in federal prisons and cut spending in the process? The task can be accomplished swiftly and safely by ordering the Bureau of Prisons to fully implement the Second Chance Act, which received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. The legislation provides for 12 months in a halfway house for inmates who prepare themselves for release by participating in job training, education, parenting, anger management and drug treatment programs. This time allows inmates to rebuild their relationships with their families, find employment and arrange for housing, among other tasks that significantly improve the chances of a successful transition from prison to freedom.
Incredibly, the Bureau of Prisons has refused to implement this congressionally mandated policy. Instead, it has placed an arbitrary cap of six months on halfway house placements, severely limiting the time in which offenders can accomplish these necessary tasks and increasing the likelihood of their ending up back in the prison system.
The new president needs to immediately reverse the bureau’s policy and grant the full 12-month placement to all inmates who have earnestly prepared for their release. Combined with a renewed effort to limit lengthy incarceration to those who have committed serious crimes, the next administration has a chance to tame the prison bureaucracy and make sure that those we keep in prison are those who belong there.