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Battling the Perfect Storm: Growing Populations, Shrinking Budgets, and the Challenges of Alternative Sentencing
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Kaplan University
Published: 03/09/2015

Problemsolving On November 10, 2014, Michael Horowitz, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Justice, presented the OIG’s annual “Top Management and Performance Challenges Facing the Department of Justice” memorandum to the U.S. Attorney General. The list included seven challenges, but at the very top was “Addressing the Persisting Crisis in the Federal Prison System.” This particular challenge comprises what the report described as “two interrelated crises”: steadily increasing costs that threaten the budget of not just the Bureau of Prisons but that of the entire DOJ and overcrowding that creates “a number of important safety and security issues.”

To provide a sampling from the report, although in FY 2014 the federal prison population decreased for the first time since 1980 (albeit only by 2.6 percent) and is projected to drop by another 10,000 in FY 2016, overall costs continue to rise. The BOP’s budget represents fully one-quarter of the DOJ’s entire discretionary budget and among DOJ agencies is second in size only to the FBI. Part of the reason for this growth is an increase in inmate healthcare costs—up 55 percent from 2006 to 2013—driven by an aging offender population. In FY 2013 the BOP’s healthcare spending alone was over $1 billion, roughly equivalent to the entire budget of the U.S. Marshal Service. Just from 2009 to 2013 the number of BOP inmates aged 50 or older increased by 25 percent.

Similarly, overcrowding has remained a problem and is actually projected to worsen: BOP facilities were at 133 percent of capacity overall in June 2014, with rates of 142 percent and 140 percent in high- and medium-security facilities respectively. Yet the agency anticipates an overall capacity rate of 138 percent by FY 2018. Because of overcrowding, inmate-to-staff ratios are higher than recommended, lingering around 10-to-1. The challenge these factors present to security and offender and staff safety is obvious.

These facts are hardly news to anyone working in the federal system and are unlikely to surprise corrections professionals elsewhere, especially given that many if not most states face similar circumstances. While healthcare and the aging offender population represent a complex problem, one solution for overcrowding is to shift offenders from high-cost incarceration to alternative correctional models. Indeed, the OIG reported that BOP has failed to adequately manage its existing Compassionate Release Program—which can be applied in particular to elderly inmates—or the International Prisoner Transfer Program (IPTP), which sends foreign national offenders back to their home country to serve their remaining sentences—in 2011 BOP rejected 97 percent of transfer requests. The U.S. Attorneys’ Offices have also been encouraged to make full use of pretrial diversion, drug court programs, and other alternatives.

The tough nut to crack in alternative sentencing, however, has been the serious or violent offender—it is hardly surprising that BOP overcrowding is worst in high-security facilities. Drug court and other diversion programs at all levels typically exclude violent offenders. In 2002, the Office of Justice Programs and National Institute of Corrections introduced SVORI, the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative. This program was a multi-agency, multi-department effort to coordinate the award and application of existing grant funds to state and local agencies and “to assist them in accessing, redeploying, and leveraging those resources to support all components of a comprehensive reentry program.” It targeted both male and female offenders including juveniles and adults under age 35. Ultimately 69 grant recipients operated 88 separate reentry programs.

The effectiveness of SVORI was evaluated in a study by Pamela K. Lattimore and Christy A. Visher published in 2009. The results were not all that might have been hoped, to say the least. The National Institute of Justice description of the program summarizes the evaluation by saying that there were not “many significant differences between SVORI participants and non–SVORI participants using measures of housing, substance use, and criminal behavior/recidivism for adult male and female offenders and juvenile male offenders.”

For all three groups, there were few statistically significant differences in any of the aforementioned measures by 15 months following release and entry into the program. Generally speaking, there were minor improvements initially over the non-SVORI control group at the 3-, 6-, 9-, and 12-month post-release checkpoints, but by 15 months post-release these differences mostly vanished. Adult males and juveniles were just as likely to be reincarcerated, and oddly enough adult females were actually more likely to be reincarcerated between 12 and 15 months post-release than non-SVORI offenders.

So does this mean alternative sentencing models for serious and violent offenders are useless? That is a broad and perhaps unnecessarily pessimistic statement, but perhaps a new perspective is warranted. In 2006 and 2008 Colorado and Washington examined “prevention investments,” some of which are outside the corrections system entirely, for their effectiveness in preventing future incarceration.

Early childhood programs: These pre-K educational programs were determined to provide a return on investment in excess of $12,000 per child. More specifically, a 19-year follow up study determined that children in such programs eventually had 4.6 percent lower rates of felony arrest and 5 percent lower rates of incarceration than the general population.

Nurse-family partnerships: Nurses make home visits to low-income new mothers for up to two years to provide parenting skills training and other support. Children in these programs had a 16 percent reduction in future crime, and for the mothers the reduction was an impressive 56 percent.

Functional family therapy: This short-term family intervention juvenile justice program reduces future crime among participants by 16 percent.

Multidimensional treatment foster care: This program for at-risk youth similarly reduces future criminal behavior by 16 percent.

Multisystemic therapy: This counseling model focuses on specific risk factors in both the juvenile and his/her family to address behavioral issues. The result based on a 14-year follow up study is 54 percent fewer arrests and a 57 percent reduction in time spent incarcerated.

There may be no magic bullets when it comes to incarceration alternatives for serious and violent offenders. Perhaps, then, the point at which to apply resources and efforts is long before our prisons are forced to house them.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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