The federal prison system is in "dire need of reform," former U.S. Representative J. C. Watts, Jr. (R-OK) declared yesterday as the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections that he heads finally got under way in Washington, D.C.
While many states have acted to rein in their growing prison populations, federal prisons have stood out as notable exceptions, with the inmate total ballooning from 25,000 in 1980 to 219,000 in 2013. It's down to 210,736 as of last week, but many of the 121 federal lockups are full or overcrowded.
After many years of discussion, the Colson Task Force, named after the late prison reformer Chuck Colson, met for the first time at the Urban Institute, which is administering it. The nine-member panel was created at the insistence of retired U.S. Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), who presided over spending for the Justice Department, where the nearly $7 billion spent on prisons each year has been gobbling up more and more of the Attorney General's budget. That reduces funding available for things like anticrime grants to states and localities, as well as other crime-fighting priorities.
Watts' bipartisan panel is on a fast track by Washington standards, with a report due in a year. His vice chair, former Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-WV), said that Washington "should follow the example of the states" by coming up with "consensus-driven reform" that he and other task force members hope will reduce the number of federal prisoners while also cutting recidivism.
Both task force members and witnesses yesterday agreed generally that new approaches are needed, such as cutting back on mandatory minimum sentences that have packed federal facilities with drug offenders, and offering more and better services to former inmates---given that up to 95 percent of those now behind bars will get out some day.