Federal Prison System:

Justice Could Better Measure Progress Addressing Incarceration Challenges

GAO-15-454: Published: Jun 19, 2015. Publicly Released: Jun 19, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has implemented three key initiatives to address the federal incarceration challenges of overcrowding, rising costs, and offender recidivism, which includes the return of offenders to prison after release. The Smart on Crime Initiative involves multiple DOJ components and has five key goals, one of which involves prioritizing the prosecution of the most serious cases. The Clemency Initiative is intended to encourage federal inmates who meet criteria that DOJ established to petition to have their sentences commuted, or reduced, by the President. DOJ is now more focused on prioritizing its review of these petitions, which have increased from about 1,600 in 2011 to about 6,600 in 2014. Finally, DOJ's Bureau of Prisons (BOP) recently established a Reentry Services Division (RSD) to facilitate a more centralized approach to overseeing reentry programs and better assisting offenders in their reentry to society.

DOJ has several early efforts under way to measure the success of these initiatives, but its current approach could be enhanced. In particular:

Smart on Crime Initiative: GAO found that DOJ's 16 recently established Smart on Crime indicators were well linked to the effort's overall goals. However, in many cases, the indicators lacked other key elements of successful performance measurement systems GAO has previously identified, such as clarity and context. For example, 7 of the 16 indicators are confusing or do not represent the information the indicator name implies, and 13 of the 16 indicators lack contextual information needed to appropriately interpret their results. DOJ officials said they focused their initial indicators on data already available rather than developing new indicators. Although measuring performance can be a challenge for prosecutorial agencies such as DOJ, research indicates that improved data collection and clearly defined goals and progress measures can help agencies develop effective performance measurement systems. By exploring such options, DOJ would be better positioned to more effectively measure its efforts through the Smart on Crime Initiative.

Clemency Initiative: DOJ tracks some statistics related to its Clemency Initiative, such as the number of petitions received and the disposition of each, but it does not track how long, on average, it takes for petitions to clear each step in its review process. Such tracking would help DOJ identify processes that might be contributing to any delays. Without this tracking, DOJ cannot be sure about the extent to which the additional resources it is dedicating to this effort are helping to identify and expedite the review of inmate petitions.

Reentry programs: BOP has recently developed a plan to conduct evaluations of some of its reentry programs related to psychology treatment services, but it does not have a plan to prioritize evaluations among all 18 of the programs it lists in its national reentry directory. Modifying its current evaluation plan to consider all of these programs would better position DOJ to know the extent to which its investments in programs intended to reduce recidivism are effective.

DOJ's early efforts to implement the Smart on Crime Initiative are consistent with GAO's key collaboration best practices, such as establishing mutually reinforcing strategies. For example, DOJ directed its law enforcement components and United States Attorneys' Offices to coordinate on establishing prosecution priorities and antiviolence strategies nationwide.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal inmate population has increased more than eight-fold since 1980, and DOJ has identified prison crowding as a critical issue since 2006. BOP's rising costs and offender recidivism present incarceration challenges to both DOJ and the nation. For example, BOP's operating costs (obligations) have increased over time, and in fiscal year 2014 amounted to more than $7 billion, or 19 percent of DOJ's total obligations. In recent years, DOJ has implemented targeted initiatives in response, and Senate Report 113-78 included a provision for GAO to review these efforts.

This report discusses (1) DOJ's initiatives to address federal incarceration challenges, (2) the extent to which DOJ is measuring its efforts, and (3) the extent to which DOJ is coordinating across its components to implement the Smart on Crime Initiative. GAO reviewed DOJ documentation, interviewed DOJ officials, and compared DOJ efforts with performance measurement and coordination best practices GAO has previously identified.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DOJ explore additional data collection opportunities and modify its Smart on Crime indicators, track and address delays in the sentence commutation process, and modify its current evaluation plan to prioritize evaluations among all 18 of BOP's national reentry programs. DOJ partially concurred with GAO's recommendation that it modify its Smart on Crime indicators and agreed with the other two. GAO continues to believe the Smart on Crime recommendation is valid, as discussed in the report.

For more information, contact David C. Maurer, 202-512-9627, maurerd@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In August 2015, DOJ reported that it has taken steps to obtain new, more granular data elements that it hoped to incorporate into its indicators. However, DOJ also stated that it did not believe that measureable targets were appropriate for its Smart on Crime indicators because prosecutors need to make case by case decisions without regard to targets or concerns for any other incentive. As of October 2016, DOJ had not provided any updates on its progress addressing this recommendation to enhance performance measurement. Until DOJ provides this information, we cannot determine whether its efforts resulted in indicators that incorporate key elements of successful performance measurement systems. In March, 2017, DOJ noted that, due to a change in administration, the consequences of the Smart on Crime initiative are uncertain, and did not provide any further updates on its progress addressing our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Department of Justice effectively measures its efforts to address incarceration challenges, the Attorney General should explore additional data collection opportunities and modify its Smart on Crime indicators to incorporate key elements of successful performance measurement systems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In August 2015, DOJ reported that tracking the steps of its review would not provide meaningful data because the Department prioritizes those cases for review that appear likely to meet the Clemency Initiative factors announced in April 2014. Nevertheless, DOJ stated that it agreed that identifying and addressing unnecessary delays in the review process is important, and that it has been regularly working to identify and address such delays. As of October 2016, DOJ had not provided any updates on its progress addressing this recommendation to better track and address any unnecessary delays. Until it does so, we cannot determine whether it is meeting the key goal of the new Clemency Initiative--to expeditiously identify and review especially meritorious petitions. In March 2017, DOJ noted that due to the accelerated clemency review process implemented in 2015, it currently has no standard process to evaluate, and did not provide any further updates on its progress in addressing our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Department of Justice effectively measures its efforts to address incarceration challenges, the Attorney General should direct the Office of the Pardon Attorney, in conjunction with the Office of the Deputy Attorney General, to (1) track how long it takes, on average, for commutation of sentence petitions to clear each step in the review process under DOJ's control, and (2) identify and address, to the extent possible, any processes that may contribute to unnecessary delays.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: We found that while BOP had developed a plan to conduct an evaluation of some of its reentry programs, specifically related to psychology treatment programs, it did not have a plan in place to prioritize evaluations across all of its reentry programs. As a result, we recommended that BOP include, as part of its current evaluation plan, all 18 of BOP's national reentry programs, and prioritize its evaluations by considering factors such as resources required for conducting evaluations. In May 2016, BOP provided an updated evaluation plan that identified the factors it considered in developing the priority order for each evaluation, as well as the resources required and the targeted dates for completing each one. This new plan is comprehensive and includes all of BOP's national reentry programs. This new plan is consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Department of Justice effectively measures its efforts to address incarceration challenges, the Attorney General should ensure that the Director of BOP includes, as part of its current evaluation plan, all 18 of BOP's national reentry programs, and prioritizes its evaluations by considering such factors as resources required for conducting evaluations and changing characteristics of inmates over time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

 

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