April 14, 2015 - The federal criminal justice system needs rethinking to reduce the prison population and to help former inmates reintegrate into society, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and the head of the nation’s prison system advocated recently at the University of Houston Law Center on April 9.
Jackson Lee, D-Houston, a senior member of the House Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees, hosted Charles E. Samuels, Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, April 9 in a discussion called “Prison Reform & Re-Entry.”
“Criminal justice is the infrastructure of lives of so many people,” Jackson Lee said.
“In the jail system of America, there are about 2.3 million people. There are individuals who are able-bodied, but they are incarcerated.”
The total annual budgets for the nation’s prison and jail systems – at the federal, state and local levels – is $75 billion, she said, with the federal system alone accounting for $6 billion.
Both Jackson Lee and Samuels pointed out that from the 1940s, when the federal prison system was made into a single entity, to the 1980s, the total inmate population remained at an average of about 20,000 inmates.
But beginning in 1980, a nationwide push to get “tough on crime” and the so-called “war on drugs” resulted in policies such as mandatory minimum sentences that led to an explosion in the prison population. Today, there are 209,000 people in the federal prison system.
Since there are no paroles in the federal criminal system, Jackson Lee for many sessions of Congress, starting with the help of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, has introduced a “Good Time Early Release” bill aimed to allow federal inmates to be released earlier than their mandatory minimum sentences would allow. The current version, H.R. 71, called the “Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Act,” remains in committee.
“H.R. 71 is a valuable piece of legislation to begin to move people out of prison,” she said.
Samuels, who began with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as a corrections officer in 1988 after receiving a B.A. in criminal justice from the University of Alabama (Birmingham), said he became interested in the prison system as a young child after seeing the classic road-gang movie “Cool Hand Luke.”
“I had a lot of questions. I wanted to know what did prison actually mean?” he said.
Samuels said the Federal Bureau of Prisons today comprises 121 prisons, as well as other facilities called Regional Release Centers, across the nation, and employs 39,000 people.
“We’re in the business of helping the individuals become productive, law-abiding citizens so they do not return to a life of crime,” he said.
“Contrary to what you might have heard, we do not want to see the Bureau of Prisons continue to grow,” Samuels said. The primary drivers of the federal prison population, he said, are the rates of prosecutions and the lengths of sentences – neither of which the BOP controls.
In 1980, the bureau had a budget of $330 million, an inmate population of 26,400, and 10,000 employees, he said. In the most recent fiscal year, the BOP budget was $6.8 billion – about 30 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget. To build a high-security prison now costs $500 million, he said.
“We are on a path that’s unsustainable, he said. “We’re also in the business of doing what we can to help. We do not want to be a burden on the taxpayers. We have a duty and an obligation to do everything we can to reduce those numbers.”
Samuels said the BOP also has “a duty and obligation to the children of incarcerated parents, male and female.” The federal prison system is 93 percent male and 7 percent female, he said, with women prisoners numbering 13,900. The bureau faces a large challenge in ensuring that it provides equity to all prisoners it its programs and policies, he said.
“The prison system should never be used to enforce punishment on an individual to make their lives miserable. The punishment should be the time they serve. We should be doing everything to ensure that the programs that are being taught serve these individuals, because we are a nation of second chances. If we fall short of that, then we’re only hurting this issue. We are not being part of the solution,” he said.
Samuels pointed to several recent initiatives the bureau has undertaken to help inmates connect with their families and other people important in their lives. Research shows that inmates who have such connections have a much lower recidivism rate, he said.
Among those programs are a recent “Dads and Daughters” dance at a BOP facility in Miami and a “Mom and Me” event at a facility in Kentucky.
“We also provided, for the first time, an opportunity for children to spend the night with their mother at our facility in Brooklyn,” he said. While many people might express concerns about children spending the night in a jail, he said, “I can assure you that for those children who have that opportunity to spend that quality time with their mother, it was priceless.”
Samuels noted that the BOP releases approximately 40,000 people back into the nation’s communities.
“We want these individuals when they’re released to be better off,” he said. “Reentry begins in the federal prison system the moment an individual enters our system. We believe it’s important those conversations start very early on.”
Samuels said the BOP’s reentry programs, which cost an average of $600 million annually, are evidence-based and cost-effective. He encouraged people to learn about the programs at the bureau’s website.
Samuels said that under the “Smart on Crime” programs initiated by Attorney General Eric Holder, BOP in fiscal year 2014 saw its first population decrease – by 10,200 inmates – in 34 years. “This is huge,” he said. Overcrowding at federal prisons has fallen from 40 percent over capacity to 28 percent, he said, reducing the propensity for violence among inmates.
These initiatives, which focus on reducing the number of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders as well as “compassionate releases” based on medical and other factors, are not putting the public at risk, Samuels asserted.
“When inmates leave our custody and our staff members wish them luck and encourage them to make good decisions, fortunately most do,” he said. “I’m proud that only 20 percent of individuals that are released from the BOP return. And when we look at the overall recidivism rate for federal, state and local, that number is 40 percent. Which tells you we still have work to do, and we will continue to do our best in that area.”
In a question-and-answer session that followed Samuels’ presentation, Jackson Lee said that there is “a great movement afoot” in the Congress to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, which many see as a key driver of the large inmate population. But, she said, there are some high-ranking members of Congress who are “not ready to deal with mandatory minimums.”
Both Jackson Lee and Samuels urged the audience to make the case – including talking to legislators and writing opinion columns – for prison reform.
The UHLC discussion was one of the last stops in a whirlwind day in Houston in which Jackson Lee and Samuels talked with local officials and community leaders at the downtown Mickey Leland Federal Building and with faculty and students at Texas Southern University.