Viewpoint

How our next president can reform prisons

The number of federal inmates went from 25,000 in 1980 to 190,000 today, and we will spend almost $7 billion on federal prisons this year.
The number of federal inmates went from 25,000 in 1980 to 190,000 today, and we will spend almost $7 billion on federal prisons this year. AP

Government’s first priority is to keep our people safe. Dangerous criminals belong in prison, and the cost of incarcerating them is money well spent. But today the net of criminal law ensnares far more than just violent criminals.

Roughly half of federal inmates are drug offenders. Only 14 percent of those are major traffickers. The rest are small fish, expensive to imprison and quickly replaced on the street by others looking to support their drug habit. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we are locking up a lot of people we are just mad at.

Luckily, the next president already has the tools to lower recidivism, increase public safety and lower the cost to taxpayers – by learning from policies instituted by states and implementing laws already passed by Congress.

The number of federal inmates went from 25,000 in 1980 to 190,000 today. We will spend almost $7 billion on federal prisons this year, with costs increasing yearly. The inspector general said this is “unsustainable.”

Fortunately, state governments have shown we can reduce imprisonment and crime and save a lot of money in the process. They have done it by reserving costly prison beds for violent or career criminals. “Tough-on-crime” Texas, for example, scrapped plans to build more prisons and put much of the savings into drug courts, treatment and mental health services. Since then, it has cut its inmate population, closed three prison facilities and saved over $2 billion. Most important: violent crime rates there are lower than they’ve been since 1968.

The next administration can follow the states’ example by ordering the Bureau of Prisons to fully implement the Second Chance Act, which had overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. The act provides for 12 months in a halfway house for inmates who prepare themselves for release by doing job training, education, parenting, anger management and drug treatment programs. This time allows inmates to rebuild relationships with family, find employment and seek housing, among other tasks that improve chances of a successful transition from prison to freedom.

Incredibly, the Bureau of Prisons refused to implement this congressionally mandated policy. Instead, it placed an arbitrary cap of six months on halfway house placements, severely limiting the time in which offenders can accomplish these tasks and increasing the likelihood they end up back in prison.

The new president must immediately reverse the bureau’s policy and grant the 12-month placement to inmates who have prepared for release. Combined with a renewed effort to limit lengthy incarceration to those who have committed serious crimes, the next administration can tame the prison bureaucracy and ensure those we keep in prison belong there.

Pat Nolan is director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation.

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