With presidential hopefuls taking up the issue of mass incarceration and bi-partisan criminal justice reform bills moving through both chambers of Congress, it’s essential that Americans have all the facts when it comes to our federal prison system. If we’re going to have a meaningful conversation about how to fix our overcrowded and costly federal prisons, we must have a shared analysis of the problem, based not on political rhetoric, but on data and evidence. I spent the past year leading a bipartisan blue ribbon commission of experts examining the federal corrections system and producing a blueprint for reform. Armed with that knowledge, it’s time to debunk some of the most widely held myths about federal prisons.

Myth 1: All those in prison for federal drug offenses are violent traffickers

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A U.S. senator recently said “If you’re in federal prison for drug crimes, you’re almost certainly a dealer and a trafficker, which is built on an entire edifice of violence.” This type of thinking perpetuates the overly simplistic idea that if you’re not a pot-smoking college kid, then you must be a serious drug kingpin. The reality is more complex: Drug dealing and drug trafficking offenses exist on a continuum, meaning that many of those who commit them don’t have a violent history, didn’t play a leadership role in a drug operation, and aren’t a risk to public safety. But given the way our laws are set up, these men and women are still subject to mandatory minimum penalties that result in long lengths of stay. Even taking into account good conduct credits and the recent retroactive reduction in federal drug sentences, the average expected time served for drug offenses is more than nine years.

Myth 2: Reducing the federal prison population would result in a crime wave

The recent focus on federal prison reform has brought the usual collection of naysayers to the fore. These include alarmists who charge that efforts to enable prisoners to reduce their sentences through program participation and other mechanisms will threaten public safety. Research on the impact of federal sentence reductions suggests otherwise. The U.S. Sentencing Commission evaluated the impact of its 2007 reduction in sentences for certain low-level crack cocaine offenders and found no difference in recidivism rates among those who were released early and those who served longer sentences. Lessons from state reform efforts bolster that finding, with reductions in both incarceration and crime rates occurring simultaneously.

Myth 3: Federal prisoners have ample access to programs behind bars

From yoga to electrical training, pop culture paints a picture of federal prisons as offering ample opportunities for self-betterment. And even some legal scholars perpetuate this myth. As the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald recently testified, “It’s hard to find a prisoner who hasn’t been offered programs galore.” That’s simply not the case. While all federal prisoners are assessed for program and treatment needs, demand far exceeds supply. Waitlists for GED programs and other rehabilitative offerings in federal prison are extremely long, despite the fact that many of these programs have been rigorously evaluated and proven effective.  

Ironically, some of the most effective programs have been subject to federal budget cuts over time. If Congress is serious about federal prison reform, it must be coupled with efforts to shore up programs to ensure those serving time are prepared to live law abiding lives upon release.

Myth 4: Law enforcement is opposed to prison reform

Perhaps because the most vocal detractors to sentencing reform happen to be prosecutors, people have the misconception that the entire field of law enforcement practitioners is against federal criminal justice reform. To the contrary, prosecutors and police chiefs from all 50 states have called for reform. And some of them, like Sen. Mike LeeMike LeeTrouble draining the swamp? Try returning power to the states Congress must act to protect data privacy before courts make surveillance even easier Five tough decisions for the GOP on healthcare MORE (R-Utah), are currently members of Congress and sponsors of reform legislation. Even former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, appointed by George W. Bush (and former assistant U.S. attorney) has recently advocated in favor of reform, testifying before Congress that compassionate release, “along with reduced mandatory minimums and the expanded safety valve features…will help reduce the prison population and the proportion of Department of Justice resources absorbed by BOP.”

Former federal prosecutor for the District of New Mexico and Charles Colson Task Force member David Iglesias echoed that sentiment, stating earlier this year that we should “follow the evidence, rather than our passions” when making criminal justice policy. Even among those prosecutors who oppose changes in federal sentencing statutes, the vast majority favors greater opportunities for programs and treatment for federal prisoners.

As Congress contemplates prison reform, it could take a page out of the book of state experiences. Beginning in the early 2000s, state leaders began to examine the massive outlays of public resources dedicated to incarceration, observing that despite these expenditures, recidivism rates remained stubbornly high. Public officials on both sides of the aisle came together to develop better models, informed by evidence and data, that could reduce prison overcrowding, conserve resources, and enhance public safety. These reform efforts demonstrate that it is indeed possible to promote public safety while being fiscally responsible, creating a more equitable and effective criminal justice system.

Watts served in the House from 1995 to 2003. He was chairman of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, established by Congress to examine challenges in the federal corrections system and develop practical, data-driven policy recommendations.