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Senate Hearing Explores the Exorbitant Costs of Incarceration

Dan Zeidman,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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August 1, 2012

Over the last 30 years, the population of the federal prison system has increased exponentially – nearly 800 percent – largely due to the overrepresentation of those convicted of drug offenses, many of whom are low-level and non-violent. Today, a record 218,000 people are confined within Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) operated facilities or in privately managed or community-based institutions and jails.

At the same time, we’ve also witnessed skyrocketing prison expenditures. The cost to maintain the federal prison population has grown by 1700 percent since the 1980s and shows no signs of abating. In fact, the President’s FY 2013 budget request for the BOP totals $6.9 billion, which is an increase of $278 million over the FY 2012 enacted budget for the Bureau.

In response to these alarming trends, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing today to take a closer look the rising costs of incarceration in the United States. Hopefully, the members of the committee came away with a better understanding of the cost – in lives, taxpayer dollars and public safety – of mass incarceration.

While the federal government has yet to take on the federal prison crisis in earnest, a number of states – including Connecticut, South Carolina, Texas and Vermont – have already demonstrated that bipartisan criminal justice reform can reduce the prison population, cut corrections expenditures and maintain public safety.

For example, last year in Ohio, a Republican majority legislature passed a measure that is projected to save the state $1 billion over the next four years by – among other things – increasing the amount of time a prisoner can earn towards early release, eliminating the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity, removing mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level drug offenses, and expanding the use of diversion programs for low-level drug offenders.

While attitudes towards crime have been politically divisive in the past, the current climate has narrowed this gap by revealing the waste and ineffectiveness of overincarceration. Just as a multitude of states have worked in a bipartisan manner to curb overincarceration, it is critical that the expansion of the federal prison population be addressed immediately. Today, the ACLU applauds the Senate Judiciary Committee’s decision to take a serious look at rising prison costs, but there is still much to be done on the road to reform.

Ending mass incarceration and restoring fairness to the criminal justice system will require the continued commitment of lawmakers, judges, law enforcement, advocates and concerned citizens who recognize that, as Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer recently explained, “Maximizing public safety can be achieved without maximizing prison spending.”

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