Need for prison reform is evident

The director of the Bureau of Prisons, Charles E. Samuels, Jr., testified yesterday (Nov. 6) before the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing about cost-effective strategies for reducing recidivism.

The unsustainable nature of the current federal prison system was a constant theme. Samuels spoke about overcapacity, prison conditions and safety concerns. Senators from both sides of the aisle expressed their desire to work toward reform. Our nation’s criminal justice system is broken. Changes are clearly needed to the entire system.  It is great that all sides are on the same page but, now what?

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The need for significant reform is vast and evident. Samuels testified that on average it costs $29,000 a year to house an inmate. He admitted triple bunking inmates is common due to space constraints. He stated staff safety is a major concern, as they try to do more with less. 

One shocking exchange during the hearing came when Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), raised a vital issue - the handling of the growing number of women in the criminal justice system. Based on Director Samuels’s response, it was clear he did not know much about the female inmate. The reality is 80 to 95 percent of women in the criminal justice system have some history of domestic or sexual abuse. Substance abuse is prevalent among 80 percent of female inmates, and many have reproductive health needs.  Female inmates are also more likely to have children and are less likely to be in the criminal justice system for violent crime. Programs and assessments should be tailored to their gender specific needs.

There were signs that Washington has awakened to the realities of the prison crisis we face.  Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) expressed his commitment to move some type of sentencing reform by the end of the year. Many senators, including Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), voiced their concern that too much money is spent on federal corrections. There was also wide agreement that programs that are successful in reducing recidivism, like the Residential Drug Treatment Program, Federal Prison Industries, and others, should be expanded. There was also consensus that since BOP has no control over intake and length of sentences, sentencing reform is something Congress could address.

Members of Congress need to come together to pass meaningful, comprehensive criminal justice reform. Several members have introduced bills to help reduce the growing prison population. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Leahy have introduced the Smart Sentencing Act, which will better focus limited federal resources on the most serious offenders. Just last week, Reps. Raul Labrador (R-Ida.) and Robert Scott (D-Va.) introduced the companion bill in the House. Ideally, in the coming weeks, members of Congress and the administration will talk about passing these bills and others like them.

But enough with the talking, let’s see some action. 

Danyelle Solomon is policy counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Washington, D.C. office, where she focuses on democracy and justice issues.