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Task force recommends federal sentencing reform

By Erick Payne | Investigative Reporter

WASHINGTON – While lawmakers in Texas, Utah, Georgia and South Carolina are making headway in reforming their prison systems, progress is advancing much more slowly at the federal level, according to a briefing Tuesday by the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections.

The task force, established by Congress in 2014, issued a report with recommendations to reduce the federal prison system population by 60,000 in coming years, potentially saving taxpayers up to $5 billion. The money could be used for programs that have been proven to reduce crime.

The report is a detailed road map that places public safety first, according to the task force.

“We are confident our recommendations, if carried out as detailed in this report, will allow Congress, the president, and the attorney general to reduce the federal prison population, increase public safety and cut costs,” J.C. Watts Jr., chair of the task force, said.

Federal prison spending is nearly at $7.5 billion, accounting for about 25 percent of the total Department of Justice budget. Spending on federal prisons has grown at almost twice the rate of the rest of the DOJ budget.

“The system is failing those it incarcerates and the taxpayers who fund it,” Watts said. Watts, a Republican, represented Oklahoma in the House from 1995 to 2003. He is a Washington lobbyist.

Among the task force’s six recommendations are changes to federal policies on mandatory minimum sentences – deemed a leading cause of overcrowding and unsustainable growth.

Mandatory minimums are inflexible laws that set minimum sentences for some crimes that judges can’t lower, even under extraordinary circumstances.

“Mandatory minimum sentences, particularly those for drug and violence offenses, have imposed a one-size-fits-all sentencing model that does not serve the interest of public safety,” Vice Chair Alan Mollohan said. Mollohan, a Democrat, was a House member from West Virginia from 1983 to 2011.

The task force suggests that drug mandatory minimums be adjusted to include only people convicted of serious federal crimes. Judges should be allowed to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum for weapon possession offenses associated with nonviolent crimes, the report says.

Some states have reduced prison populations by using special courts for drug offenders, providing drug treatment and increasing supervision of prisoners released after short sentences.

About half of all inmates in the federal system are being held on drug offenses. State systems are the opposite, with about half of all inmates held for violent crimes.

Federal to State

The federal prison system held 197,000 people last year, making it the largest in the nation. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, detaining 2.2 million people across its jails and prisons on any given day.

“A bipartisan appetite for reform is readily apparent in actions taken by all three branches of our federal government,” Watts said.

President Barack Obama visited El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma last year, making him the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.

The commission was named after Colson, known as President Richard Nixon’s hatchet man during the Watergate era. Colson, who died in 2012, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in 1974. He became an evangelical Christian and founded a prison ministry.

Reach reporter Erick Payne at erick.payne@scripps.com or 202-408-1489. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

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