Forbes Magazine is hardly a haunt of bleeding heart lefties and this piece by Walter Pavlo isn’t brimming with the milk of human kindness. Pavlo writes for Forbes about white collar crime and talks primarily to business groups. He thinks federal prisoners, who do not benefit from parole, ought to get 128 days of good time per year instead of the measly 54 days the federal system presently allows. If prisoners could cut their sentences by one-third by acting like model prisoners, a lot of them would. Moreover, when they return to the free world, as 97% of them will, they will be better prepared for what lies ahead.
The idea of radically reducing the prison population makes sense even if you don’t care about the human dynamics of the issue. It saves tax payer money. But here’s the question; if we don’t have jobs for these people, and if we refuse to hire ex-offenders with marketable skills, what’s to keep them from re-offending? It will take a combination of compassion and common sense to answer this question. If there is no work for felons in the free world we must make work for them–and that could cost almost as much as locking everybody up for everything.
That said, America would be a better country if we shut down half our prisons tomorrow or, more realistically, if we made this happen over the course of a decade. But those who refuse to consider the issue from the perspective of the ex-offender will have a world of unintended consequences knocking at their door.
Read Pavlo’s piece. You’ll learn something.
Currently, federal inmates (219,000 of them growing at a rate of over 6,000 per year) have an ability to earn “Good Time” for each year they are incarcerated. The current Good Time earned by an inmate is 54 days per year for being, well, good. Nobody wants another day added to their sentence, nor does an inmate want to call home and tell the family ‘I got caught smoking pot so I won’t be home for another month or two’.
While state prison populations have declined, mostly due to budget concerns, the federal inmate population continues to grow each year. More inmates mean more dollars. In 1980 there were 25,000 federal inmates and the Bureau of Prisons had an annual budget of about $330 million …. today’s inmate population of 219,000 requires a budget of $6.6 billion. Tough Federal Sentencing Guidelines have resulted in longer prison sentences with no chance of parole (early release), while at the same time there are few prisons being built. With the current federal prison system at 39% over capacity, what we are now faced with is a math problem. So with budgets tight, inmate populations growing and laws that are sending first time non-violent offenders to prison for decades, what should we do? TheCongressional Research Service, which recently published a paper on the federal prison population, details the fragile state of our prison system. The non-profit group FedCure has latched on to this study to support their own solution to prison overcrowding …. release some inmates.
FedCURE has proposed a simple way for the U.S. government to address prison costs and overcrowding by introducing the Barber Amendment:
Barber Amendment – Title 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b)(1) is amended as follows: by striking the number “54″ in the first sentence as it appears and inserting in lieu thereof the number “128″; and in the same sentence, by striking “prisoner’s term of imprisonment” and inserting in lieu thereof “term of sentence imposed”. This Amendment is retroactive.
The amendment got its name from the case Barber et al v. Thomas, Warden, which sought to define how Good Time was calculated. FedCURE’s amendment to Title 18 U.S.C. would have the affect of moving “Good Time” from 54 days/year to 128 days/year, and that, according to FedCURE’s chairman Mark Varca, would save the U.S. government $1.2 billion/year. A lot of money.
One would think that the crime rate would go up with the release of all of these inmates. That’s probably not going to happen. First, 56.2% of federal inmates are categorized as low or minimum security, meaning that, in my mind, they pose minimal security risk to the general public. Of the total inmate population in the federal system, over 40,000 inmates are categorized as community custody, which means they can, and do, work outside of the prison. In fact, inmates even take buses and trains with the general public to move between prisons (Go Greyhound!). According to FedCure, 60,000 federal inmates are released each year (yep, they eventually do leave), so the flow of “bad guys” back into the general population has not led to more crime. One would even hope that they are better for the experience. It should be noted that of the number of inmates released annually, the U.S. is deporting 20,000 of them …. give them room and board for a decade, then send them home. We’ll save securing the borders for another blog.
Mass release of inmates is not unprecedented. “People screamed that there would be shooting in the streets when the crack cocaine laws were changed,” Varca said in an interview I had with him last week, “over 12,000 inmates were released as a result, and guess what? Nothing happened.” Varca was referring to the Fair Sentencing Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2010, which was designed to reduce the disparity between the mandatory minimums for crack cocaine offenses as compared to powder cocaine offenses. Thousands of inmates were released as a result and the Supreme Court recently said that thousands more, those who were convicted before the act was passed but sentenced after it, will also be going home earlier than they thought.
In a time when we want people off of government assistance, the federal justice system is feeding more people into prison …. and believe me, prison IS government assistance (food, shelter, healthcare, supervision and monthly stipend (yes, inmates are paid)). Are we less safe with guys like Raj Rajaratnam (insider trading) doing only 6 years in prison rather than the 11 years he received? Raj’s long sentence sure did not deter someone fromtrading on Heinz shares prior to the announcement it was going private at a stock premium. Would a Raj sentence of 6 years uphold respect for the law? I think it would. Do you think Raj, whether he spent 6 years in prison or 11 years, would be any more likely to commit a another crime? I’m thinking Raj is done with trading and doubt he placed any of those suspicious trades on Heinz. Look, the primary difference between an inmate doing 11 years and another one doing 2 has to do with the number of people he/she testified against and not their threat to society.
There is no doubt that long prison sentences make the general public feel good over the short term, but the costs of incarceration go on for the long term. I realize that images of white-collar felons and low-level drug dealers working side by side breaking rocks conjures up feelings of justice. However, we now live in a time when there are video cameras at stop-light intersections, drones that patrol war zones, my iPhone can even find itself, so there has to be a better way to monitor felons (inmates) without having them housed on sprawling government complexes and on the government payroll. Ankle bracelet? GPS? Community service projects? Punishment/Sentences can still be doled out in years but does an entire prison term need to be served on a government, tax payer subsidized, compound?