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It’s Time to Address Federal Prison Overcrowding

November 14, 2012 06:44:54 am
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The most expensive presidential election in history is over. In a campaign dominated by the economy, criminal justice issues played literally no role in either candidate’s campaign. 

From a political point of view, ignoring criminal justice issues was the right way to go.  According to a Gallup Poll conducted this fall, less than one percent of Americans believed crime was the nation's most pressing problem.

There is no question that violent crime has fallen over the last decade and a half. However, we live in a country where about 14,500 people were murdered in 2011, a significant majority by gun fire.

Every year, thousands of innocent people are victims of burglary, robbery and aggravated assault.

More than 6.6 million people are in prison, jails or under community supervision. Incarceration alone costs taxpayers $65 billion a year. The sputtering economy, which was the focus of both national campaigns, has forced state legislators across the country to choose between being “tough on crime” or raising taxes.

According to CBS News, in 2011, fifteen states passed significant sentencing reform legislation with an eye on cutting costs.

Now, President Barack Obama and a politically divided congress must tackle dangerously overcrowded federal prisons.

A recent report released by the Government Accountability Office, Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and Infrastructure, found that the Federal Bureau of Prisons operated at 39 percent over recommended capacity nationwide.

From 2006 to 2011, prison population grew at 9.5 percent, outpacing the 7 percent growth in infrastructure and new beds. Prisons are staffed at 90 percent, the minimum safe standard, reported the Madison Times.

“This severe crowding has resulted in double and triple bunking inmates,” Harley G. Lappin, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons told the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2011.

“As of January 2011, 94 percent of high security inmates were double bunked, and 16 percent of medium security inmates and almost 82 percent of low security inmates were triple bunked or housed in space not originally designed for inmate housing.”

Overcrowding can create dangerous conditions for inmates and prison staff. 

The inability to get into programming can adversely affect an inmate in several important ways.  First, mental health issues, drug and alcohol or anger issues are not being addressed.

Second, inmates who want and need the programming begin to get frustrated, and that can lead to acting out.  Third, some inmates without programming head to the streets without addressing their criminogenic needs.

Cramped quarters and a lack of privacy can lead to a heightened level of tension in correction facilities.  In turn, as tension grows the incidence of violence against staff and fellow inmates increase.  With minimum staffing and growing supervision responsibilities, corrections officers and inmates are more vulnerable. 

Overcrowding and understaffing is a recipe for disaster.

"If you start cramming more and more people into a confined space, you're going to create more tensions and problems," David Maurer the GAO's Director of Homeland Security and Justice told The Huffington Post.

"It creates the possibility that someone's going to snap and have a violent incident."

Overcrowding itself can exacerbate the crowding problem. 

For instance, an inmate with mental health problems living in an overcrowded and unsettled facility will tend to act out.  The conduct may be nothing more than defiant or annoying, but misconducts will begin to mount. 

An inmate who may have thrived in another environment is now removed from consideration for early release and further contributes to the overcrowding crisis.

The federal prison budget increased from $6.4 billion in 2011 to $6.6 billion this year.  Next year the budget is set at more than $6.8 billion.  Even with the increase, the Obama Administration is not just blindly throwing money at the overcrowding problem.

This year’s budget provides $153 million in prisoner reentry and jail diversion programs, including $80 million for the Second Chance Act and $52 million for problem-solving grants supporting drug courts, mentally ill offender assistance, and other problem-solving initiatives. 

The Obama Administration has acknowledged that, with 2.3 million people in prisons nationwide and 1 in 32 American adults under some form of correctional supervision, a new direction is needed.

One potential direction might include reining in federal over-criminalization. A little more than a century ago there were a handful of federal criminal statutes. As of 2008, there were more than 4,000 federal crimes.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the growing number of federal crimes is responsible for the rising number of people sentenced to federal prison.  The U.S. population grew by 36 percent over the last 30 years. 

The total federal prison population grew more than eightfold—twice the growth rate of the state prison population.

Investing in reentry services on the back-end might influence the cycle of reincarceration. 

However, only bold—forward thinking—initiatives on the front-end will lead to real and meaningful reductions in prison populations.

Matthew T. Mangino is an attorney and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. He recently completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.  You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on twitter @MatthewTMangino. He welcomes comments from readers. 

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