In the wake of a series of high-profile, police-related incidents across the country, members of Congress have proposed an ever-increasing number of criminal justice reform bills. This has resulted in a spate of news stories touting Washington’s bipartisan “momentum” for criminal justice reform.   

Yet I fear that with so many competing options on the table, we may miss this important window of opportunity because we haven’t prioritized what our nation really needs. I would respectfully suggest that Congress can best lead the nation to true criminal justice reform by first addressing the federal corrections system.


The grave overcrowding of federal prisons prompted Congress to create the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections late last year.  This nine-person, bipartisan, blue-ribbon task force chaired by former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) is mandated to examine challenges in the federal corrections system and develop practical, data-driven policy responses in a report due to Congress in January 2016. 

This week the Colson Task Force held its third public meeting and released a new data brief, which documents that facilities in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) house 30 percent more people than they were designed to safely hold. This overcrowding is concentrated in facilities with the highest security levels, with high-security facilities at 52 percent over capacity and medium-security facilities with a 39 percent overage.  

This overcrowding presents challenges that ripple throughout the system, creating safety risks for corrections officials and incarcerated individuals. It also reduces the availability of rehabilitative programs that those behind bars so desperately need, due to lack of staff and space.  

Furthermore, the increasing financial cost linked to the burgeoning federal prison population —almost $7 billion was appropriated to BOP for FY 2015—has squeezed the Department of Justice budget at the expense of other public-safety priorities. This means fewer federal prosecutors, less assistance to victims of crime, fewer grants to state and local law enforcement and less support for treatment and intervention programs.  

While we await the Colson Task Force’s comprehensive recommendations, Congress has a responsibility to take action now to remove the plank from its own eye and begin to get the federal corrections system in order. Justice Fellowship, the advocacy group I lead, has prioritized two legislative proposals that would advance this goal.   

First is Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Senate bucks Trump with Yemen war vote, resolution calling crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi killing | House briefing on Saudi Arabia fails to move needle | Inhofe casts doubt on Space Force GOP-controlled Senate breaks with Trump on Saudi vote Senate moves toward vote on ending support for Saudi-led war MORE (R-Utah) and Rep. Raul Labrador’s (R-Ida.) Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA), which has received support from an array of cosponsors and organizations, including a number of conservative leaders. This legislation addresses excessive sentences given to people with drug offenses, who make up roughly half of the federal prison population. 

Additionally, Senator John CornynJohn CornynGOP senator floats options to prevent shutdown Congress strikes deal on bill for sexual harassment cases involving lawmakers The Hill's Morning Report — Takeaways from the battle royal in the Oval Office MORE’s (R-Texas)  CORRECTIONS Act, which is based on legislation that passed out of the Senate Judiciary committee on a 15-2 vote last session, presents an opportunity to greatly reshape time spent in federal prison from a period of incapacitation to a crossroads of transformation. This bill calls for the federal Bureau of Prisons to expand programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism.

I urge the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to give priority to these two legislative proposals, which offer significant opportunities for Congress to address its primary criminal justice responsibility—the federal corrections system.

DeRoche is the former speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives and the executive director of Justice Fellowship, the advocacy arm of Prison Fellowship.