DOJ to Sentencing Commission: Fewer Prisoners, Please

In a congressionally mandated annual report to the US Sentencing Commission on the operation of federal sentencing guidelines, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) said continuing increases in the federal prison populations and spending are "unsustainable" and called on the commission to work with other stakeholders to reduce federal corrections costs. But the report failed to address the single largest factor driving the growth in the federal prison population: the huge increase in the number of federal prisoners doing time for drug offenses.

Even the feds can no longer sustain current mass incarceration policies. (US Supreme Court)
According to data compiled by Drug War Facts and based on Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, in 1980, there were some 19,000 federal prisoners, with some 4,500 having a drug offense as their most serious offense. By 2010, the number of federal prisoners had increased tenfold to more than 190,000, and a whopping 97,000 were doing time for drug offenses, also a tenfold increase. The percentage of drug offenders increased during that period from roughly 25% of all federal prisoners in 1980 to 51.7% in 2010.

As DOJ noted in its letter, the first decade of that period corresponded to the end of decades of increases in crime and violent crime, leading to record high crime rates, which had generated a number of policy responses, including more police, harsher sentencing, and an increased emphasis on illegal drugs. But as DOJ also noted, beginning in 1992, violent crime has dropped consistently, and the US is now safer than it has been in decades.

All that costs money. The DOJ report noted that state, local, and federal criminal justice expenditures jumped nearly six-fold between 1984 and 2006, from $32.6 billion to $186.2 billion. State and local spending continued to rise until 2009, when the financial crisis and subsequent economic recession took hold, while federal criminal justice spending rose nearly ten-fold, from $4.5 billion to $41 billion.

But even though the federal government is more cosseted from economic hard time than the states, even it can no longer spend freely. As the DOJ letter noted, "The Budget Control Act of 2011 sent a clear signal that the steady growth in the budgets of the Department of Justice, other federal enforcement agencies, and the federal courts experienced over the past 15 years has come to an end."

While federal criminal justice budgets have been relatively flat in the last few years, the costs of imprisoning an ever-increasing number of people has not, and that means fewer resources for other criminal justice spending, including aid to state and local law enforcement and prevention and intervention programs. Within DOJ, the core law enforcement functions (policing, prosecution, prisons) have increased from 75% of the budget in 2002 to 91% this year.

"The question our country faces today is how can we continue to build on our success in combating crime and ensuring the fair and effective administration of justice in a time of limited criminal justice resources at all levels of government?" the DOJ noted. "In other words, how will the country ensure sufficient investments in public safety, and how will those involved in crime policy ensure that every dollar invested in public safety is spent in the most productive way possible?"

With budgets flat, criminal justice spending has to get more bang for the buck, the DOJ letter said.

"We must ensure that our federal sentencing and corrections system is strong but smart; credible, productive and just; and budgetarily sound," the letter said. "But maximizing public safety can be achieved without maximizing prison spending. The federal prison population -- and prison expenditures -- have been increasing for years. In this period of austerity, these increases are incompatible with a balanced crime policy and are unsustainable.

"We believe federal sentencing policy should be reviewed -- both systemically and on a crime-by-crime basis -- through the lens of public safety spending productivity. Adopting that perspective, we think it is clear that there are many areas of sentencing policy that call be improved," the letter continued. "We have identified many of the crime-specific areas over the last several years that warrant substantive reexamination. And we have also put forward legislative proposals to make systemic changes that would help control prison costs in a responsible way that furthers public safety. As to the guidelines process itself, we think reforms -- including some simplification of the guidelines and some limits on sentencing appeals -- are worth fully considering."

It is clear what is driving the growth in the federal prison population and the federal corrections budget: drug war prisoners. While the Obama administration DOJ is to be credited with taking some steps that move in the direction of reducing the number of prisoners and the corrections budget, such as supporting the partial reform of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, its failure to directly address the consequences of policies of mass imprisonment of drug offenders means that it is missing the elephant in the room.

Washington, DC
United States
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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"The “war on drugs” has also generated indirect costs that many researchers contend have undermined public safety. The federal government has prioritized spending and grants for drug task forces and widespread drug interdiction efforts that often target low-level drug dealing. These highly organized and coordinated efforts have been very labor intensive for local law enforcement agencies with some unanticipated consequences for investigation of other crimes. The focus on drugs is believed to have redirected law enforcement resources that have resulted in more drunk driving, and decreased investigation and enforcement of violent crime laws. In Illinois, a 47% increase in drug arrests corresponded with a 22% decrease in arrests for drunk driving. Florida researchers have similarly linked the focus on low level drug arrests with an increase in the serious crime index."

—Drug Policy, Criminal Justice and Mass Imprisonment, by Bryan Stevenson

Keep the faith Investors. One

Keep the faith Investors. One day the 'Markets' will come back for Bonds on 'For profit' prisons. Then not only will the 'commodity'(level of arrests) be absorbed, but a surge in arrests will accommodate the new prisons...just a matter of time.(sarcasm)

Keep the faith Investors. One

Keep the faith Investors. One day the 'Markets' will come back for Bonds on 'For profit' prisons. Then not only will the 'commodity'(level of arrests) be absorbed, but a surge in arrests will accommodate the new prisons...just a matter of time.(sarcasm) 

Marijuana Offense vs Armed Bank Robbery

Law enforcement needs to re-direct its focus on crimes... to those that are REAL crimes.

I spent 5 years in Federal Prison for a marijuana offense.  While I was there, I watched armed bank robbers come and go in as little as 20 months.

After 3 years 'behind the wall,' I pointed this out to the parole board. Their response: “You must understand, yours was a very serious offense.”
How do you respond to that mentality?

I laughed about the parole panel's comment for 2 more years (as I still sat in prison), then wrote my book:

Shoulda Robbed a Bank

No, it is not a treatise on disproportionate sentences, but a look at what the 'marijuana culture' is really about.
People pursuing happiness in their own way. Harming no one...nor their property.

That’s my contribution to helping point out just how ludicrous our pot laws truly are.
I hope you check it out.


If David Sedaris had written 'Catcher in the Rye'


5.0 out of 5 stars If David Sedaris had written 'Catcher in the Rye'..this would be it, June 30, 2012By C. Adler - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)    Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)This review is from: Shoulda Robbed a Bank (Kindle Edition)

I have never smoked pot in my life...nor do I ever care to.
I read about this book in numerous Huffington Post comments. Thought I would read it because I know nothing about marijuana or the people involved with it. I am ecstatic that I did. Funny, Funny, Funny!!!
The chapters are like short stories. Stories about unloading boats with helicopters, close encounters with law enforcement, traveling through the jungles of South America. The chapter about the author's first time smoking marijuana made me feel like I was with him...coughing.
All of the characters were just a group of loveable, nice guys and girls. Not what I had been raised to believe...hysterical maniacs high on pot bent on death and mayhem. They were nothing like that.
If you have ever read any of David Sedaris' books, and like will love Shoulda Robbed a Bank.
And the crazy things happening reminded me of Holden Caufield in 'Catcher in the Rye' and the way he staggered through life.
The way the words are put together are like nothing I have ever heard. I am sure I will use many of the sayings found in this book just to dazzle my friends. A terrific read. I love this book.  

For the past 100 years we've

For the past 100 years we've seen that prohibition has a high price. As we saw with alcohol prohibition and the Volstead act, these morality codes turned law abiding citizens into criminals and bred an underground market and demand based on scarcity and taboo. The public got fed up with policies that routinely incarcerated the poor and ethnic and religious minorities and turned law enforcement against citizens. Then as now, the high cost of enforcing these laws became too much to bear. The public has seen the toll of prohibition and history will repeat itself.

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