WASHINGTON — The Justice Department should limit the types of cases it brings and more nonviolent criminals should be steered toward probation and away from prison, according to task force recommendations designed to cut the federal inmate count and save more than $5 billion.
The suggestions were released Tuesday amid a national dialogue across the federal government about overhauling the country's criminal justice system, which critics say is overly expensive and has resulted in unduly long sentences for nonviolent drug criminals. A bipartisan effort to cut the prison population appears stalled for the moment in Congress, though the White House and Justice Department have encouraged changes in how suspects are prosecuted and sentenced at the federal level.
The recommendations from the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections provide concrete steps prosecutors, judges, prison officials and policymakers can take to reduce prison overcrowding and ease spending on a corrections system that's swelled in the last three decades as a result of harsh mandatory minimum sentences imposed on drug criminals.
"From severe overcrowding to an insufficient array of programs and incentives to encourage behavioral change, the system is failing those it incarcerates and the taxpayers who fund it," J.C. Watts Jr., a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma and task force chairman, said at a news conference announcing the findings.
Congress created the nine-member task force two years ago to recommend changes to the corrections system. The panel concluded the system is in crisis, gobbling up a quarter of the Justice Department budget. Nearly 80 percent of drug crime prisoners have no serious history of violence, and more than half had no history at all, according to the task force's report.
The panel said if all its recommendations were implemented, the federal inmate count could drop by 60,000 by fiscal year 2024. More than 196,000 convicts are currently in federal prisons or halfway houses.
The group's recommendations cut across the criminal justice system, calling for Congress to repeal mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses — except for drug kingpins — and for judges to have more discretion to impose shorter sentences, including probation and drug court instead of prison for nonviolent crimes.
It also recommended that the Justice Department limit the types of cases that it brings and ensure that "only the most serious cases" that require specific expertise are prosecuted at the federal level. But the task force acknowledged that matters including white-collar crime, national security and drug trafficking would continue to be the Justice Department's responsibility.
In addition, the task force urged the Bureau of Prisons to promote programs to prevent freed inmates from reoffending, and it said the Sentencing Commission should encourage broader use of probation.
Speaking in New Orleans on Tuesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the recommendations important and said she was committed to addressing the problem.
"The swelling number of inmates has maxed out our facilities, jeopardized our rehabilitation efforts and made it harder for correctional officers to safely and effectively do their jobs — which are already among the most difficult in law enforcement," Lynch said.
Some of the actions, such as an overhaul of mandatory minimum penalties, would require Congress to act — likely a longshot in an atmosphere in which a bipartisan effort to change the criminal justice system is in jeopardy.
But other steps, such as encouraging shorter sentences for nonviolent drug criminals, are in keeping with recent policy directives the department has issued. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, for instance, directed prosecutors to limit their use of mandatory minimum penalties as part of his 2013 Smart on Crime initiative.
And President Barack Obama has been willing to consider dramatic criminal justice revisions under his own authority, announcing on Monday night a ban on housing juvenile offenders in solitary confinement at the federal level.
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