This common sense bill comes at a critical time. The federal government simply cannot afford to continue to house so many nonviolent prisoners for such lengthy sentences. According to a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, the number of inmates under the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) jurisdiction has increased from approximately 25,000 in FY1980 to nearly 219,000 in FY2012. BOP prisons are operating at 38 percent over capacity, endangering the safety of guards and inmates alike. Last week, the Inspector General for the Department of Justice testified that it’s only going to get worse: the BOP projects system-wide crowding to exceed 45 percent over rated capacity through 2018. The economic cost of the prison population boom is staggering. Since FY 2000, appropriations for the BOP have increased from just over $3.5 billion to more than $6.5 billion.
Locking everyone up costs a lot, but it doesn’t always keep us safer. University of Chicago economist and Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt was perhaps the most influential supporter of pro-prison policies in the 1990s. He later concluded that, as the crime rate continued to drop and the prison population continued to grow, the increase in public safety diminished. “We know that harsher punishments lead to less crime, but we also know that the millionth prisoner we lock up is a lot less dangerous to society than the first guy we lock up,” Dr. Levitt recently told The New York Times. “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration.” Today, Dr. Levitt says, “I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”
The head of the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal division agrees that spending on federal prisons must be scrutinized. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer recently wrote, “In an era of governmental austerity, maximizing public safety can only be achieved by finding a proper balance of outlays that allows, on the one hand, for sufficient numbers of police, investigative agents, prosecutors and judicial personnel to investigate, apprehend, prosecute and adjudicate those who commit federal crimes. And, on the other hand, a sentencing policy that achieves public safety correctional goals and justice for victims, the community, and the offender.” We are lacking that balance today as skyrocketing corrections spending, driven by increasing reliance on one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentencing laws, is now crowding out spending on investigators, police, and prosecutors.
In short, we are skimping on efforts to arrest and prosecute violent criminals so that we can keep nonviolent offenders behind bars for lengthy prison sentences. This is insanity.
Passing the Paul-Leahy bill would enable courts to make sure the time fits the crime in every criminal case. While keeping us safe, it would also save money that could be returned to taxpayers or invested in more effective anti-crime strategies, such as putting more police on the street or expanding the use of proven recidivism-reducing programs in our prisons. We can still be tough on crime, but we do not have to be tough on taxpayers.
Stewart is the founder and president of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) and Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform.