By Sheldon Whitehouse
Among the nation’s long-term fiscal challenges is one that is rarely discussed: federal prison costs. Spending on federal prisons consumes an ever-growing share of our budget — and often makes us less safe than smarter options.
From 1940 through 1980, the federal prison population was remarkably stable at around 24,000 inmates. By last year, it had grown to more than 215,000. At an average cost of approximately $29,000 per inmate, the federal Bureau of Prisons now spends over $6.7 billion annually, a twentyfold increase since 1980. Add the cost of inmates in the custody of the U.S. Marshals, and the total we spend housing federal prisoners will be more than $8 billion this year.
The growth in federal prison spending threatens other law enforcement priorities. As a part of the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons competes for funding with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, all U.S. attorneys’ offices, and many programs that support state and local police departments and victims of crime.
In 1980, spending on federal prisons and detention was less than 16 percent of the Justice Department’s budget. Now, it is more than 30 percent. That means fewer federal law enforcement agents, fewer federal prosecutors, and less money for crime victims. We now spend more on our federal prisons than we do on the DEA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and all federal prosecutors put together. And while the amount we spend keeping federal prisoners locked up has doubled since 2000, federal funding for state and local law enforcement was cut in half during that period. The “crowd-out” effect is very real.
Even worse, the additional dollars we spend on prisons each year may not improve public safety. Much of what we spend housing federal inmates could be put to better use fighting crime in other ways.
State governments recognized these problems years ago, and many took action. Using what is known as the “justice reinvestment” approach, states across the country, including Rhode Island, brought together leaders from all branches of government to reduce spending while better protecting the public.
These states re-examined sentencing policies to determine whether some nonviolent offenders were being sentenced for longer than necessary. They created specialized courts — such as our state’s own innovative veterans treatment court — to address the unique needs of certain populations in the criminal justice system. Many expanded programs that assist ex-offenders in making the transition from prison, leading to lower rates of recidivism. Some states, including Rhode Island, offered inmates the opportunity to earn earlier release from prison in exchange for completing courses proven to reduce the risk that they would commit future crimes, such as drug treatment programs and vocational training.
Recognizing the link between substance abuse and crime, many states expanded treatment programs and support for individuals in recovery and offered alternatives to incarceration for some offenders. Led by the example of Hawaii’s innovative HOPE program, some states recognized that they could achieve better results if the penalties for minor parole violations were swift, predictable and short.
These reforms produced results. Rhode Island, led in this task by our extraordinary state Corrections Director A.T. Wall, has shown how to save money on prisons while making the public safer. In 2008, the state legislature enacted a package of changes to our state’s criminal justice system. The reforms were followed by a 9 percent decline in the state’s prison population — as well as a 7 percent decline in the state’s crime rate. In 2012, our state had fewer violent crimes, fewer property crimes, and fewer total crimes than in 2008.
Other states have had similar outcomes. In 2007, Texas, long synonymous with tough justice, enacted a package of reforms that saved $443 million over two years and led to the closure of a prison for the first time in the state’s history. And like Rhode Island, Texas had fewer crimes in 2012 than in the year it passed its reforms. This story — repeated in states such as Kentucky, Ohio, Arizona, and many others — is one of the most underreported successes of the past decade.
Congress should learn from what these states have accomplished. For the first time in years, there is widespread bipartisan interest in working to control federal prison spending. The Senate Judiciary Committee will soon consider legislation in this area, including a bill I have introduced with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), which seeks to implement many successful state reforms in the federal system. If states as diverse as Rhode Island, Texas, Ohio and Kentucky can rein in corrections spending while better protecting the public, surely we in Congress can do the same.
Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, is a U.S. Senator for Rhode Island and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.