US Government Report Warns That Prison Crisis Threatens The Entire Justice System

Prison Guard Tower At Sunset in TexasAP Photo/Eric GayA prison guard stands on a tower at the Connally Unit near Kenedy, Texas, after an inmate escape in 2001.

The Department of Justice’s inspector general released a strongly worded report Friday finding the “crisis” in America’s federal prison system poses a “critical threat” to the DOJ’s ability to function.

The Bureau of Prisons took up about 20% of the DOJ’s budget in 2001, but the BOP now eats up a full quarter of the budget, the report pointed out. The president’s latest budget shows the total cost of “correctional activities” will continue to go up until 2018, according to the inspector general’s report.

The inspector general said “the costs of the federal prison system continue to escalate, consuming an ever-larger share of the Department’s budget with no relief in sight.”

This is problematic because the DOJ is using resources on prisons that could be going to enforce the law, protect national security, and defend people’s civil rights, the inspector general said. The DOJ’s role in protecting national security became even more apparent after the Boston Marathon bombings, the report noted.

As Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums tweeted today, “I feel less safe after reading this report: BOP swallowing DOJ budget. What’s left for public safety?”

To be fair, leadership at the DOJ has recognised that America’s tendency to lock people up diverts resources from the agency’s other efforts.

Deputy Attorney General Eric Cole told the American Bar Association last month, “Every dollar we spend [on prisons] is a dollar we are not spending on law enforcement efforts aimed at violent crime, drug cartels, public corruption cases, financial fraud cases, human trafficking cases, child exploitation, just to name a few.”

Attorney General Eric Holder has also directed federal prosecutors to, in many cases, stop charging crimes in a way that triggers lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.

The inspector general’s report says the DOJ can still do a better job of using existing programs to cut its prison population. One of those programs is the International Prisoner Treaty Transfer Program, which lets the U.S. ship foreign prisoners back to finish their time in their native countries.

That program has been in place since 1977, but foreign nationals still made up 26% of federal inmates in 2013.

“At a time when the Department’s leadership is concerned about a prison cost crisis,” the Inspector General report stated, “the Department must continue its efforts to improve the implementation of this program that has been authorised by Congress and that could have a material impact on prison costs.”

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