Here is one way to cut the federal budget deficit we have not heard much about: early release options -that have to be earned - for thousands of nonviolent prisoners held behind bars at great expense.
This is an effective and safe way to save a bundle without putting public safety at risk. Best of all, these incentive-driven cuts put the onus on inmates to earn shorter sentences and prepare themselves for a successful re-entry into civil society.
The nuts and bolts of an early-release strategy for cutting federal prison costs can be found in a recent Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) report titled, "How Congress can Cut Criminal Justice Spending Without Compromising Public Safety." The FAMM strategy stresses ways to get more inmates out of prison - and ways to keep them out. Here is how it works:
l Early release credit: Currently, well-behaved federal prisoners can shorten their sentences by earning up to 47 days of early release credits each year. By boosting the credit ceiling to 54 days per year - as proposed in President Obama's budget for 2012 - the federal prison population will drop faster as will federal spending, by $41 million per year.
Inmates completing the Residential Drug Abuse Program receive up to one year off of their sentences. This program not only helps inmates deal with their addiction problems, it also lowers recidivism rates for its graduates. But currently, FAMM reports, administrative impediments limit the number of enrolled inmates. If all eligible inmates were to complete this program and earn a shorter sentence, the annual federal budget could be reduced by more than $44 million.
l Nonviolent offender: Keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison is a valid cost-saving measure. For example, prisoners who pose little threat to the public and have an illness that is difficult and costly to care for, or who have other "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances, can be released under existing compassionate release rules. If these rules were more fully utilized, they could save, on average, $65,000 per year for each released prisoner.
Less costly halfway houses and home confinement options free expensive beds inside prisons. But current policies limit these alternatives to six months per inmate. Extending these options to 12 months would give inmates more time to prepare for a successful transition to civil life and, at the same time, cut the federal prison budget by $45 million per year.
l Probation, not jail: The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 abolished parole and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 set minimum sentences for certain drug offenses. As a result, the use of probation instead of prison has dropped from 30 percent to less than 8 percent of the eligible, low-level, nonviolent offenders. For each offender placed on probation, the federal budget can be reduced by $22,250 - the difference between the cost of one year in prison and one year on probation. Putting these offenders behind bars is a senseless waste of tax money.
l Nix mandatory time: Before the drug war and before lawmakers set mandatory minimum sentences for federal offenses, the wide use of parole policies allowed prisoners a clear way to earn an early release from prison. Nowadays, thousands of prisoners just sit and wait out their mandatory sentences - at the taxpayers' expense.
More than half of all released prisoners are re-incarcerated within a few years. If inmates do not ready themselves prior to their release, short-term savings are often lost when they return to prison a few years later. That is why the FAMM strategy makes a lot of sense. It not only reduces prison costs in the short-run, it also decreases the chances ex-convicts will return to prison. And that is very good news for the American taxpayer.
Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.