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A Bipartisan Congressional Panel Just Agreed on Ways to Send Fewer Americans to Prison

Chief among the recommendations of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections is sending fewer low-level drug offenders to federal prison, and sentencing offenders to far fewer years behind bars.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

A task force appointed by Congress to suggest ways to reduce the federal prison population and improve the corrections system provided its final recommendations to the White House today, including changes that both the executive branch and Bureau of Prisons can enact without any approval from Congress.

Chief among the recommendations of the nine person, bipartisan Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections is sending fewer low-level drug offenders to federal prison, and sentencing offenders to far fewer years behind bars, which would reverse two of the changes that have driven the federal prison population to grow by 700 percent since 1980.

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But the task force also dug into the minutiae of how the prison system is operated, including how it evaluates the success of its programs, the recidivism rate, and how it uses its resources. In their final report, members suggest that the prisons should actually devote more resources to addiction treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, classes, and faith programs, and incentivize participation by offering offenders reducing time from their sentences and a "second look" at their cases by a federal judge after they've served certain number of years.

"If their behavior is good in the program, they've taken part in programs, they can have their sentence looked at again. It's an incentive to have people behave well and participate in programs that are evidence-based to improve behavior," said Laurie Robinson, a criminal justice professor and former Assistant Attorney General who served on the task force.

Robinson said these incentives would enable the offender to remain hopeful while incarcerated.

"This hope issue — the hope to have their confinement reconsidered…and that there is a way to better yourself behind bars, and that somebody is paying attention — human beings live on hope," she said.

Related: How to Stop the Dangerous 'Revolving Door' of Jailing the Mentally Ill

The task force was led by two former Congressmen, one from each party: Oklahoma Republican J.C. Watts, Jr., and West Virginia Democrat Alan B. Mollohan. State-level lawmakers, US Attorneys and federal judges , criminal justice experts, and clemency advocates all served on the task force as well, holding hearings with the public, with prisoners, victims, and families, correctional staff, advocacy groups, and Justice Department officials.

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Robinson described her experience working with the task force as "terrific." Despite 30 years working in the criminal justice system, she said she learned both from the diverse viewpoints of her colleagues and the federal prisoners she met on site visits.

"Some were in their late 60s or 70s, and at least one of those individuals was in very bad health and said he had applied several times for compassionate release," she said.  "And it just made you think: Why are we spending so much in the way of taxpayer dollars to keep people behind bars?"

The result of the meetings and research was the "blueprint" of reforms released Tuesday with a focus on "sensible, cost-effective strategies to reduce crime." And though the committee was launched in 2014, its report was released just as bipartisan support for prison reforms had reached critical mass in the federal government. Multiple bills are being worked on in the Senate and the House to reduce prison sentences for drug offenders in the federal system, and unlikely allies the Koch Brothers, Newt Gingrich, Van Jones, Cory Booker, and the ACLU have all come out as advocates for reform.

"If I were going to summarize this year I would call it the year of unlikely alliances," said Jessica Jackson Sloan, the National Director of the #cut50 campaign.

Related: Congress Wants to Reduce America's Prison Population — But It's Easier Said Than Done

The report acknowledges a "bipartisan appetite for reform" and urges all three branches of Congress to seize the moment to enact change.

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"After decades of unbridled growth in its prison population, the United States faces a defining moment," it says. "There is broad, bipartisan agreement that the costs of incarceration have far outweighed the benefits, and that our country has largely failed to meet the goals of a well-functioning justice system."

Robinson and her colleagues were meeting with senior staff at the White House today to brief them on the report and point out which actions could be taken without a Congressional vote or legislation.

"There are things in there that the director of the BOP could do tomorrow, she said, noting that there are also steps the DOJ and president could take that focus on management, resource allocation, and best practices.

"Others of them I think might not happen necessarily quickly but maybe are things that will get into the public conversation that will have to happen at a later time," she said.

The federal prison system currently hold 197,000 people, down from its peak of 220,000 in 2013. There are more than 2 million people in prison nationally, but many of them are held in state prisons. The goal of lawmakers, the report states, should be to reduce the prison population by 60,000 over the coming years and creating a savings of $5 billion to be reinvested in programs that actually help improve public safety, rather than simply keep people locked up.

The report cites the drug and weapons laws of the 1980s that created mandatory minimum sentences as the main drivers of the system's population growth, citing the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 as the "centerpiece of today's sentencing regime" that caused the population to begin spiking in the 80s. Prior to that, the federal prison population had remained mostly flat for the preceding 40 years, according to the report. The mandatory minimum penalties that were introduced with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986 encouraged the growth of the next decades. And along with population, the costs of the federal prison system exploded. Federal prison spending now accounts for one-quarter of the DOJ's budget.

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Many of the prisoners whom Robinson met during her time on the task force were incarcerated for low-to medium-level drug offenses, she said, many of them trafficking crimes for which the offenders were serving decades behind bars. The reallocation of resources toward helpful programs and an eye toward shorter sentences would offer them hope.

"When you take hope away from people completely it does make you wonder about the humanity of the system," she said.

Going forward, the report says, sentences should be individualized, policy should emphasize public safety, data should guide policies, and the costs should be more carefully considered. Most importantly, the report says, the lawmakers who receive the recommendations "must capitalize on this rare moment in time" of political will and public awareness to make effective change.