state prisons

The nine-member bipartisan panel of the Charles Colson Task Force met for the fourth time on May 13 at the Urban Institute to examine challenges of the federal corrections system. This system, which has increased tenfold since 1980, has problems of overcrowding, funding, and security.

The Urban Institute and its partner, the Center for Effective Public Policy, developed research, strategic guidance, analysis, and logistic support for the task force, addressing topics such as “Defense Perspectives on Federal Justice Reform” and “Innovative Practices in the Federal Justice System.”

“The time is ripe for federal prison reform,” said Task Force Chair J.C. Watts Jr., a former Oklahoma congressman (1995-2003). “Our blue-ribbon panel harnesses the expertise of some of the brightest justice policy minds in the country, including criminal justice leaders who have been working to safely reduce corrections populations in their home states.”

He said the two organizations could further improve the prison system and reduce costs that are consistent with meeting obligations for public safety.

Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said 70 million people in the United States have criminal records.

“The penal approach is a failure,” Reimer said. “There must be a notion of forgiveness. Are we a nation of criminals?”

Reimer added that in relation to punishment, “collateral consequences” for offenses such as misdemeanors, should be torn down.

The meetings that took place before brought out many challenges that have been ignored which now must be discussed due to a lack in funding, overcrowding, and legislation.

There are 102 federal prisons in America. The federal prison population has grown 750 percent since 1980 from approximately 25,000 inmates in 1980 to 216,000 in 2014.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there were 94,000 drugs-related incarcerations, 30,000 weapons incarcerations, 22,000 arrests for immigration (both deportation and criminal activity) and 70,000 arrests for other offenses in 2014. The U.S. Department of Justice said 688,000 people were released from state and federal prisons in 2011.

Other problems include racism, support of families, strategies in rehabilitation, and lack of prison staff. Seventy-five percent of the drug offenders in federal prisons are Black and Hispanic. The percentage of African Americans rose 45 percent.

“We really need to think about who really needs to be in prison,” Watts said.

Insights for the panels come from written testimonies. Many who write them appear at the meetings as witnesses to discuss their views and answer questions from the panel.

The nine-member bipartisan group of the task force includes former congressman Alan Mollohan, vice-chair; David C. Iglesias, director of the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government and Public Policy; Jay Neal, executive director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Transition, Support, and Reentry; Cynthia W. Roseberry, project manager for the Clemency Project 2014; Laurie O. Robinson, professor of criminology, law and safety at George Mason University in Virginia; Ricardo M. Urbina, former judge for the U.S. District Court; John E. Wetzel, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections; and Jim Liske, president and CEO of the Prison Fellowship Ministries.