The same year I was elected to Congress, a young man named Donald Taylor was arrested, then later convicted, for selling powder cocaine and sent to federal prison on a 20-year term. Taylor had once planned on a lifelong military career, but after he was struck by a motorist near Fort Rucker, Ala., he was honorably discharged from the Army. Haunted by injuries and the collapse of his dream, Taylor fell in with the wrong crowd and began selling drugs.
The year was 1994, the peak of our nation’s tough-on-crime politics, and most lawmakers supported long prison terms for offenses like Taylor’s. Sparing no expense for public safety, representatives on both sides of the aisle steadily expanded the reach and scale of the federal correctional system, viewing incarceration as a surefire solution to crime.
Two decades later, Donald Taylor and I crossed paths on a mutual journey to transform America’s correctional approach. He had completed his sentence, earned a college degree and landed a job helping troubled youth — determined to ensure others avoided his path. I had been named chairman of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, a panel scrutinizing the dynamics driving increases in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ population and costs.
Most folks in Washington probably remember Chuck Colson for his role in Watergate. But after serving time behind bars, Colson founded a prison ministry and was a vigorous advocate for the incarcerated until his death in 2012.
The task force named in his honor was established by Congress to undertake an exhaustive analysis of the federal prison system and recommend improvements. For more than a year we conducted interviews and roundtable discussions, reviewed data and scientific research, and learned about prison reform success stories unfolding in the states. Our membership was bipartisan and diverse, including a former prosecutor, a state corrections director and representatives from the judiciary, the defense bar and the faith community.
By December, the evidence we’d gathered pointed to one overriding conclusion: our federal prison system is in crisis, failing those it incarcerates and the taxpayers who fund it.
How did we get here? Despite recent reductions, the Bureau of Prisons has experienced more than a six-fold increase in its population in the past four decades, driven by long, mandatory minimum sentences for drug and weapon offenses.
Costs have jumped right along with that growth. Now hovering around $7 billion, federal prison spending has grown at more than twice the rate of the rest of the Department of Justice budget and accounts for about one-quarter of the total.
Despite this investment, four out of 10 people who leave federal prison are re-arrested or have their supervision revoked within three years of release. And inside prisons, overcrowding jeopardizes the safety of correctional officers and those they oversee, while limiting the availability of mental health care, substance abuse treatment and other programs proven to reduce recidivism.
Back in 1994, the consensus was that lengthy prison terms were the best response to crime — even nonviolent offenses. But we know more today about what works to change criminal behavior, and we know that for many lower-level offenders, alternative sanctions can work better than incarceration to help individuals steer clear of future crime and become productive members of society. The proof is playing out in states like Texas, Georgia and Pennsylvania, where reforms are cutting costs while holding offenders accountable and keeping crime rates low.
It is now time for the federal government to follow the states’ lead and commit to making bold changes. With public safety foremost in mind, our task force has produced a unanimous blueprint for reform that is anchored in data and the best available evidence on what works to reduce recidivism. The details can be found in our just-released report. But underlying all the policy proposals and budget projections is one vital truth: America is a country that believes in redemption, and for too long, our reflexive reliance on incarceration has left us little room to prove it.
We call for judges to have more discretion in tailoring sanctions for drug offenses to the unique facts and context of each case. That means reserving mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses solely for drug kingpins — those functioning in a leadership role in a large drug-dealing enterprise. To redress the exceedingly long sentences of those already incarcerated, we recommend that Congress establish a second-look provision, which would enable anyone who has served more than 15 years to petition for resentencing. And we advise that the powerful incentive of earned time off of a federal inmate’s sentence be used to encourage those in confinement, who are not serving life sentences, to participate in programs and treatment that have been demonstrated to increase their odds of successful integration when they come home. We recommend inmates be given the opportunity to earn up to a 20 percent reduction in time served if they take part in addiction treatment, educational programs and other self-improvement curricula.
Right now, however, we’re holding fast to an overly punitive, one-size-fits-all correctional approach that has left a legacy of wasted human potential in its wake — particularly in the communities of color disproportionately impacted by these policies.
Sharanda Jones is a compelling case in point.
A first-time, nonviolent offender, Jones spent 16 years in federal prison for her peripheral role in a drug conspiracy. Because of our inflexible sentencing guidelines and excessive penalties for drug crimes, Jones’ daughter grew up without a mother. And Jones would still be incarcerated today if President Obama had not commuted her sentence in December.
Let me be clear: Violent, repeat criminals certainly deserve to be locked up — for a very long time — and you’ll never hear me arguing otherwise. But for offenders like Jones, we should rely more heavily on alternative sanctions that ensure lawbreakers pay their debt to society, but also increase the odds they will turn a corner and go on to lead crime-free lives.
Taken together, our recommendations are projected to reduce the federal prison population by 60,000 over the next decade and save taxpayers more than $5 billion. No less important, these reforms will produce a criminal justice system that does more than merely lock away people like Sharanda Jones and Donald Taylor for years upon years, devastating families and communities without producing corresponding public safety dividends.
If we harness the bipartisan momentum for reform today, we can reshape our correctional system into a force for positive change. That, in the end, will mean a safer, more productive America.