[Update August 2, 2020: Prison Law Blog first published this article, which looked much more attractive then. Upon researching for this update, I found it at https://www.prisonerresource.com/bop-policy/an-inside-view-of-criminal-justice/ and improperly attributed to Christopher Zoukis. The technical error occurred during transition between different websites. I understand.
The recidivism numbers changed considerably since I wrote the article. At the end of this post I show an update to a link for more recent numbers that I am sure has also changed by now.]
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons’ inmate population dropped from almost 220,000 in 2013 to 214,277 inmates on October 4, 2014 (on 08/02/2020, the inmate population is less than 160,000, according to BOP’s website). It is unlikely that the B.O.P. had anything to do with the reduction. I am certain that the reduced numbers came from policies implemented by Attorney General Eric Holder to slow the influx of prisoners into the system. The B.O.P. does not have a track record for doing anything to slow or to reduce their prison growth rate. On paper they do a lot. In actuality they do very little. At least from my perspective that is how it is, unless another agency successfully puts pressure on them to actually do something. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) noted B.O.P.’s failure to take action in several situations, including those recommended by the OIG. See OIG December 2013 report on “Addressing the Growing Crisis in the Federal Prison System” (provided by Jeremy Gordon, ESQ (www.gordondefence.com) in his weekly newsletter email@example.com).
The report showed that the B.O.P. consumed $4.3 billion of the Department of Justice budget in 2001 (20%), and that by Fiscal Year 2013, that number ($4.3 billion) had grown to $6.4 billion (25%). The OIG then criticized them for not taking measures to reduce their prison population. Even when Congress provided relief valves for the B.O.P. to use to reduce their prison population, nothing happened. The Compassionate Release program is one example: prisoners usually die before being released for terminal illness. After the revised program statement that added other factors warranting consideration, nothing changed. I could give real life examples to prove the point, many men I knew qualified but were still denied. The revised Program Statement looked good on paper but the B.O.P. ideology stayed the same. The facts prove that B.O.P. officials are not concerned about doing anything to interfere with their job security. Maybe that is why AG Holder took the initiative in August 2013 to change D.O.J. Policies to reduce their budgetary needs, since evidence proved that the B.O.P. would not do anything to thin out their over-populated prison system. Ironically, two of the last three B.O.P. directors, who left the B.O.P. under unfavorable circumstances, went to work for Correctional Corporation of America, the world’s largest private prison industry. The number of prisoners contracted out to CCA increased after Michael Quinlan and Harley Lappin left the B.O.P. and joined CCA. The B.O.P.’s 2014 budget request included $26.2 million for 1,000 contract beds.
By the way, it seems as though anytime an Attorney General comes up with something that works or would work if implemented, they resign or move on shortly thereafter, as will Eric Holder, and as did AG John Ashcroft (after he instructed prosecutors to stop dismissing the most serious charges to get plea bargains, in order to bring practices in line with Congress’ Truth in Sentencing Act designed to reduce sentencing disparities). When AG Ashcroft sent out his memorandum, the biggest complaints came from the Public Defender Association (PDA), who threatened to recommend that more people go to trial. The PDA claimed that for every five percent decrease in guilty pleas, the court’s docket would increase by 30%. Translation: 1 out of 10 more defendants electing for trial would equate into a 60% increase in court dockets and thus overwhelm the system. Quite frankly, attorneys are “Friends of the Courts” and profit more by convincing defendants to plead guilty rather than to go to trial. Going to trial is a time consuming process. The Plea System is a “Wham Bam Thank You Mam” process that allows attorneys to send hundreds of defendants before judges for sentencing each month, versus spending days with each client who goes to trial. If more defendants went to trial, Sentencing laws would have changed years ago. The first report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (released in 1993), found that just as many people were pleading guilty and the new law was not clogging up the courts, so there was no need to recommend a change. Translation: had more people faced the devil by going to trial, instead of succumbing to the government’s often over-exaggerated threats, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 would have resulted in mass chaos in the courts and been aborted.
Another example of the B.O.P. not taking action to reduce populations, lies in their ability to give prisoners up to 54-days per year off of their sentences; instead, they choose to give 48-days, based upon their interpretation of the statute Congress created for prisoners to serve 85% of prison sentences (15% off for good behavior is 54-days that no one gets). Some states have taken initiatives to reduce their prison populations, such as California and New York. Maybe the New York success influenced AG Holder to do as he did.
California and New York legislators deserve praise, and with that coming from me, that says a lot. I am a federal prisoner serving a 35-year prison sentence for driving a second getaway vehicle in an armed bank robbery and associated charges. As a result of my part in the crimes, I will have served thirty-years and nine months by the time I am released on April 24, 2019, whereas numerous rapists, child molesters, murderers, and an assortment of other violent offenders were released within a few years of committing their crimes. Legislatures helped create the absurd laws that have kept me in prison since August 18, 1988; therefore, I normally do not give legislators much praise because of my belief that most operate more on financial initiates than on moral convictions. Maybe the same was true for those in New York and California who voted to change policies and laws. I do not know. Either way, New York legislators did well by changing the Rockefeller drug laws to slow the influx of prisoners pouring into the system, and offering early release programs for non-violent offenders to help lower deficits.
In 1991 the New York prison population was at 71,500. Since then it has dropped by 25%, which has led to the closure of several prisons and jails. Of course, when state officials announced their plan to close and sell some of those old prisons and jails, it created opposition from unionized prison workers and local residents who relied on the prisons for financial security. I do not blame anyone for not wanting to lose a job or business, but I am happy that some people got out of prison and have not had to return to feed the appetite of those who thrive off others’ misery. Those actions by NY’s legislators also helped many drug addicts hustling to get high, who no longer had to serve decades of their lives in prison for what most people seemed to view as minor offenses. The benefit for the State came from being able to reduce their prison population and then closing human warehouses for the poor and mentally ill (prisons). Taxpayers benefit through reduced tax liabilities and maybe even by gaining co-taxpayers, should those who committed sins against the state not reoffend and then become productive members of society.
My praise for California legislators comes from another article I read in the June 2014 issue of PRISON LEGAL NEWS (“Consequences of California’s Realignment Initiative,” by Christopher Petrella and Alex Friedmann), which said, “[t]he Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to proceed with plans to demolish the Men’s Central Jail …. [which] holds 19,000 prisoners.” The area that remains after the demolition of the jail will become “[a] treatment facility for offenders with substance abuse and mental health problems.” Treating prisoners with dual or co-occurring disorders (substance abuse & mental illness) will have a substantial effect on lowering recidivism rates. Even though some criticize the plan for various reasons, the politicians deserve praise because of the long-term effect that the treatment facility will have at reducing recidivism and giving the offenders another shot at life. A study reported in the December 2, 2002, edition of USA TODAY illustrates the seriousness of those suffering from co-occurring disorders (“Study: Treat addicts’ mental illness,” by Marilyn Elias).* Specialists have known for years that it took combining treatment for addiction problems and mental illness for successful treatment, and that treating those for dual disorders would reduce recidivism when the afflicted did not return to prison.
Recidivism is the return to old behaviors, such as a recovering addict or alcoholic who relapses and returns to using a mind-altering substance, or an ex-convict who returns to criminal or delinquent behaviors upon release. Unfortunately, an overwhelming percentage of prisoners recidivate: 76.6% return with a new charge within five-years of their release.** Many individual categories exceed 75%; e.g., larceny/motor vehicle theft (84.1%); burglary (81.8%); for drug offenders, 78.3% who were in for possession, and 75.4% who were in for trafficking. With such a high return rate, the numbers prove that the Get-Tough-On-Crime policies only succeed at maybe increasing the wealth of politicians and others who invest in private prison industries or companies providing goods and services to the Prison Machine. If the Incarceration of America worked, it would seem as though a higher percentage of released prisoners would not recidivate; especially, if their captors had provided treatment options for problems that led them to prison. Providing educational opportunities is another proven method to reduce recidivism but rarely acted upon.
When prison administrators failed to take action in response to the 2002 study about treating co-occurring disorders, it illustrated a lack of concern for reducing recidivism; understandably, though, since prisoners are their commodity. (It has been over twelve years since that study. To date, the B.O.P. has one small unit in Lexington, KY where treatment is combined.) In response to the study findings, Dr. Charles Curie, Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said, “And we know if these inmates recover from the disorders, they’re unlikely to repeat crimes.” Maybe that standing alone does not carry much of an impact, but when combined with the other numbers concerning the number of prisoners suffering from dual disorders who need help and are not getting it in prison, it knocks a tremendous hole in any defense the B.O.P. or any other “incarceration agency” might make to defend not taking action years ago. From that same article, Ms. Elias reported that “[a] recent study of the Pennsylvania state prison system found that 85% of inmates had addiction problems, and half of them mental disorders as well. ‘That’s typical of prison systems nationally,'” Dr. Currie said. That equates into 42.5% of prisoners having dual disorders. Considering that the United States has approximately 2.3 million prisoners, 42.5% is a lot of prisoners and a lot of tax dollars that could have been saved if prison administrations had acted to provide treatment for those who wanted to fight their co-occurring disorders. One would think that those concerned with protecting the public would have concentrated their efforts to help reform and rehabilitate prisoners who would be released back into society, so that those released would not get out and collect victims by committing more crimes.
Updated 07/27/2020: * In one of my personal essays, I wrote about the findings reported in USA TODAY and show by the numbers how my life of crime has cost American taxpayers well over a million dollars. I also show the effect of recidivism on society from a personal standpoint. I added “No Sympathy” to ESSAYS & MORE STRAIGHT FROM THE PEN by Wayne T. Dowdy, $8.95 USD).
I tell part of my personal history in dealing with addiction problems and a mental illness, from which I have been in recovery for over twenty-five years.
** NCJ244205, April 2014, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Statistics, “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010,” Mathew R. Durose, Alexia D. Cooper, Ph.D, and Howard N. Snyder, Ph.D, BJS Statisticians. [A follow-up study was done after this one that showed a more severe problem with recidivism. For more on it read the following post: https://straightfromthepen.com/2019/07/16/experimental-prison-project-by-wayne-t-dowdy/ ]
Since I wrote this blog, many things have changed. Number One, I am now a free man which numerous blog posts illustrate. 🙂 Search “Recidivism” to find more on the topic.