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Federal Prison Over-Crowding an Ongoing “Crisis,” Says DOJ Inspector General Memo

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Curbing the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ massive budget is one of the Justice Department’s seven most urgent priorities, according to a memo issued this month by DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

“The Department of Justice continues to face two interrelated crises in the federal prison system,” Horowitz wrote in a memo to the offices of the U.S. Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General. “First, despite a slight decrease in the total number of federal inmates in fiscal year (FY) 2014, the Department projects that the costs of the federal prison system will continue to increase in the years ahead, consuming a large share of the Department’s budget. Second, federal prisons remain significantly overcrowded and therefore face a number of important safety and security issues.”

Horowitz goes on to put the BOP’s bloat in startling perspective:

  • The BOP’s budget increased from $3.8 billion in 2000, to $6.9 billion in 2014. Over that 14-year span, BOP spending jumped from 18 percent of the DOJ’s discretionary budget to 25 percent of the department’s discretionary budget.
  • The BOP budget grew at “almost twice the rate” of the rest of the DOJ.
  • The BOP employs more people than any other department within the DOJ, and its budget is now second in size, behind the FBI.
  • The cost of the BOP “continues to impact the Department’s ability to make other public safety investments, as the Department’s FY 2015 budget request for the BOP is a 0.5 percent increase from the enacted FY 2014 level.”
  • The number of federal inmates over age 50 jumped 25 percent between 2009 and 2014, and the steady rise in older inmates has increased medical costs for the BOP by 55 percent since 2006.
  • In fiscal year 2013, the BOP spent $1 billion on inmate health care–almost as much as the individual budget of the U.S. Marshals Service or the ATF.
  • Incarcerating an inmate in a BOP medical center cost $58,956 in 2013, more than twice as much as it cost to incarcerate inmates in the general population.
  • The cost of treating federal prisoners with chronic hepatitis C–there are about 11,000 right now–is about to explode. Currently, prisoners are treated with a drug that costs roughly $6,600 per inmate; a newly approved treatment for the illness will cost $20,000-$40,000 per inmate. Horowitz anticipates the BOP “could face additional costs for these patients of approximately $220 million to $440 million.”
  • As of June 2014, the BOP was operating at 133 percent of capacity. Horowitz anticipates that without significant policy changes or the construction of new federal facilities, the BOP will be operating at 138 percent capacity by 2018.

“The Inspector General’s memo provides more evidence that the Department of Justice is facing a budget crisis,” said Molly Gill, FAMM’s government affairs counsel. “Over-crowded federal prisons stuffed with nonviolent drug offenders are not only a waste of money, but eating away at public safety funding for other divisions within the DOJ. Building more prisons is not the answer, and back-end fixes like compassionate release, clemency, and expansion of earned time credits can only do so much. Reforming mandatory minimum sentences is cheaper, safer, and smarter than every other option on the table.”