Justice Dept. looks to slash prison population

Combating rising costs and overcrowding in the federal prison system are among the Justice Department’s top priorities heading into the new year, officials said in a memo outlining the agency’s 2015 agenda. 
 
Inmate populations decreased this year for the first time since 1980, dropping from 219,298 inmates at the end of fiscal 2013 to 214,149 inmates at the end of fiscal 2014. Numbers are expected drop by another 10,000 inmates by 2016.
 
But DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz said a decrease in the number of inmates has yet to yield a decrease in department costs. 
 
This year, 25 percent of the DOJ’s discretionary budget went to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, up from 18 percent in 2000.
 
With rising healthcare costs and an aging inmate population, Horowitz said spending is only expected to rise. Prescription drugs are also driving up costs, particularly those to treat chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV).
 
“The Bureau of Prisons currently spends $6,600 per patient for a standard HCV treatment regimen. However, the treatment regimen newly approved by the Food and Drug Administration could cost an additional $20,000 to $40,000 per patient, according to [Bureau of Prisons] estimates,” the memo said. “In 2014, the BOP estimated that at least 11,000 of its inmates have HCV, meaning that the BOP could face additional costs for these patients of approximately $220 million to $440 million.”
 
As for overcrowding, the DOJ is working to change prosecution, sentencing and early release policies. The department said it has requested $173 million in its 2015 budget to support its Smart on Crime initiative, which promotes prevention and reentry programs and encourages prosecutors to draft criminal charges for low-level nonviolent drug offenders in ways that avoid mandatory minimum sentences.
 
The DOJ isn't alone in its effort to keep lower-level offenders out of jail. In July, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to retroactively apply reduced sentencing guidelines for certain inmates serving time for drug charges.  
 
With federal prisons still operating at 33 percent over capacity, Horowitz said the agency is now looking at ways to create more space. They're talking about building new prisons and renting space in privately managed facilities.
 
But advocates for sentencing law reforms say building additional prisons will not fix the department’s budgetary problems.
 
“Over-crowded federal prisons stuffed with nonviolent drug offenders are not only a waste of money, but eating away at public safety funding for other divisions within the DOJ,” Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for the nonprofit group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in statement.
 
“Building more prisons is not the answer, and back-end fixes like compassionate release, clemency, and expansion of earned time credits can only do so much. Reforming mandatory minimum sentences is cheaper, safer and smarter than every other option on the table,” she said.
 
Other top priorities discussed in the memo include protecting U.S. citizens from acts of terrorism, enhancing cybersecurity, oversight of law enforcement programs and protecting taxpayer funds from mismanagement and misuse.