Task force recommends how to cut U.S. prisoner count

Eric Tucker
Associated Press

Washington — The Justice Department should limit the types of cases it brings and more nonviolent criminals should be steered toward probation and away from prison, according to task force recommendations designed to cut the federal inmate count and save more than $5 billion.

The recommendations provide concrete steps prosecutors, judges, prison officials and policy makers can take to reduce prison overcrowding and ease spending on a corrections system that’s swelled in the last three decades as a result of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug criminals.

“From severe overcrowding to an insufficient array of programs and incentives to encourage behavioral change, the system is failing those it incarcerates and the taxpayers who fund it,” said J.C. Watts Jr., a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma and chairman of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections.

The nine-member task force was created by Congress two years ago to recommend changes to the corrections system. The panel concluded the system is in crisis, gobbling up more than a quarter of the Justice Department budget.

The panel said if all its recommendations were implemented, the federal inmate count could drop by 60,000 by fiscal year 2024, down from its current 196,000.

The group’s recommendations cut across the criminal justice system, calling for Congress to repeal mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses, except for drug kingpins, and for judges to have more discretion to impose shorter sentences.

It also recommended that the Justice Department limit the types of cases that it brings and ensure that “only the most serious cases” are prosecuted. And it urged the Bureau of Prisons to promote programs to prevent freed inmates from reoffending.

Some of the actions, such as an overhaul of mandatory minimum penalties, would require Congress to act — a longshot in an atmosphere in which a bipartisan effort to change the criminal justice system is in jeopardy.

But other steps, such as encouraging shorter sentences for nonviolent drug criminals, are in keeping with recent policy directives the department has issued. And President Barack Obama has been willing to consider dramatic criminal justice revisions under his own authority, announcing on Monday night a ban on housing juvenile offenders in solitary confinement at the federal level.