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Sequestration Puts Spotlight on America’s Dangerously Overcrowded Federal Prisons

Jesselyn McCurdy,
Director, Equality Division,
National Political and Advocacy Department
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February 25, 2013

Talk about worrying about the symptom instead of the cause: Attorney General Eric Holder recently sent a letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, warning of the devastating effect budget cuts will have on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) if sequestration moves forward. If no deal is reached by March 1, the BOP will face a 5% reduction in staffing levels. His letter paints a scary picture:

[The cuts] would endanger the safety of staff and over 218,000 inmates. As a consequence, BOP would need to implement full or partial lockdowns and significantly reduce inmate reentry and training programs. This would leave inmates idle, increasing the likelihood of inmate misconduct, violence, and other risks to correctional workers and inmates.

Holder’s concerns are legitimate, but he’s not talking about the real problem: our federal prison population is completely out of control.

How did we get to this point? At a time of historically low rates of crime, our federal prison system is operating at almost 40% over capacity. We’ve seen the federal prison population balloon by nearly 800% since 1980. Meanwhile, many states have enacted innovative criminal justice reforms that contributed to the first decline in overall prison population in 40 years.

Testifying before the House of Representatives, Charles Samuels, Director of the BOP, attributed the explosion of the prison population to excessively harsh sentencing and the increasing prosecutions of drug offenses. Samuels explained during his testimony that “drug offenders comprise the largest single offender group admitted to federal prison, and sentences for drug offenses are much longer than those for most other offense categories.”

We also know that immigration enforcement programs like Operation Streamline contribute to this unsustainable prison growth. Operation Streamline is a “zero-tolerance” program that requires the federal criminal prosecution and imprisonment of all unlawful border crossers in designated sectors. The program annually sweeps in tens of thousands of migrant workers with no criminal history and is a major contributor to prison overcrowding, privatization and the soaring federal rate of Hispanic and Latino incarceration.

We have focused so much on locking people up in this country that we have ignored viable and fiscally sound alternatives to prison. It’s time for our elected officials to seriously consider criminal justice reforms that will maintain public safety while reducing the federal prison population. These reforms include eliminating mandatory minimum sentences drug sentences, expanding time credits for good behavior, enhancing elderly prisoner early and compassionate release programs, and making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. We also need to eliminate programs like Operation Streamline that have added immigration prisoners to BOP who would need to be housed in new facilities, which would likely be privately operated.

Sending people to prison should be the option of last resort, not the first. We did not have to get to this point, but fortunately we have an opportunity over the next few years to adopt sensible reforms to the federal criminal justice system while maintaining public safety. While Congress is debating how to prevent the sequestration, it’s time for a real discussion about how we can stop wasting money by incarcerating people who pose little risk to our communities for long periods of time for non-violent drug crimes.

If Congress is serious about trimming the budget, the answer is simple: reduce the federal prison population.

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