Yesterday, the ACLU and a broad coalition of civil rights and religious groups called on Attorney General Eric Holder to take a stand for safe, humane, and effective criminal justice in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) when he selects its new director. Our message: the BOP is an agency in crisis that requires a director capable of leading it through a time of transition, renewal and cultural change.
Twenty years ago, BOP was considered the gold standard in corrections. No more. In the last 20 years its population has quadrupled in size without the necessary change in management philosophy or institutional culture. BOP functions at nearly 140 percent capacity, a level of overcrowding so severe that both staff and prisoners are routinely put at risk and almost no rehabilitation takes place. BOP has traditionally responded to these problems merely by asking for more prison beds and costly increases in its ever-growing budget.
What BOP has not done is take advantage of the substantial prison management tools Congress has provided, like sentence reductions for drug treatment participation and good behavior, and full utilization of community corrections so that some low-level, nonviolent offenders can serve their sentences in the community, or individuals can engage in re-entry programs in halfway houses rather than be released directly to the community from prison.
While states as diverse as Texas, Michigan and New York have adopted innovative corrections strategies to reduce their prison populations and produce better results in the community at lower costs, BOP has engaged in business as usual. Unconstrained and unaccountable to the budget pressures felt by state and local systems, BOP continues to grow while producing high recidivism rates at even higher cost. As a nation we simply can't afford these fiscal and human costs.
This is why the ACLU and a broad coalition of concerned organizations wrote to Attorney General Holder to say, "enough is enough." It's time for a real change in the leadership and outlook of BOP. This is a large and important agency with the potential to play a critical role in transforming some of the deepest social challenges we face. But it will take a fearless, independent leader committed to improving conditions, lowering recidivism and focusing on rehabilitation and re-entry to make this happen. The first step is for the attorney general to conduct a nationwide search for the candidate who can bring a correctional renaissance to Washington, D.C.