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RI Senator calls for decrease in federal prison population

February 13, 2014
by Alison Knopf
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Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) says it’s time for the federal prison system to stop growing – and in fact it should follow the lead of states and consider treating nonviolent offenders with mental illness and substance use disorders instead of putting them in prison for long periods of time.

In an op-ed published in the Providence Journal earlier this month, Senator Whitehouse recounts the dramatic expansion of the federal prison system that began in the 1980s – about the same time that the war on drugs took off. During the 40-year period that ended in 1980, the federal prison population remained the same: about 24,000 inmates. By 2013, it was more than 215,000, at a cost of about $29,000 per inmate annually to the federal Bureau of Prisons. The annual tab is now more than $6.7 billion a year, 20 times what it was in 1980.

Other law enforcement priorities within the federal Department of Justice are being squandered by spending on prisons, which is actually more than $8 billion when you add in the cost of U.S. Marshals, said Senator Whitehouse. In 1980, 16 percent of the Justice Department budget was for federal prisons and detention – compared to 30 percent today. 

And Senator Whitehouse questions whether these prison dollars even improve public safety. States are already moving to reinvest this kind of money, looking at sentencing policies to see whether they make sense. For example, does it make sense to impose long prisons sentences on nonviolent offenders, or can certain populations – notably those with mental illness or substance use disorders – be treated better by other systems? In Rhode Island, for example, inmates can obtain earlier release by completing drug treatment programs and vocational training, which reduce the risk of recidivism.

The example of Hawaii’s innovative HOPE program has also shown that penalties for minor parole violations should be swift, predictable, and short.

Similar reforms in Rhode Island led to a 9 percent drop in the state prison population, and a 7 percent decline in the crime rate.

Texas also has followed this path, saving $443 million in the two years following its 2007 reforms and closing – for the first time in the tough-on-crime state’s history – a prison. The crime rate dropped. Similar successes have taken place in Kentucky, Ohio, Arizona, and other states.

Sen. Whitehouse calls on the U.S. Congress to do the same thing, and with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has introduced a bill that would implement similar reforms in the federal prison system. “If states as diverse as Rhode Island, Texas, Ohio and Kentucky can rein in corrections spending while better protecting the public, surely we in Congress can do the same,” he concludes.