Prisoner Operations:

United States Marshals Service Could Better Estimate Cost Savings and Monitor Efforts to Increase Efficiencies

GAO-16-472: Published: May 23, 2016. Publicly Released: May 23, 2016.

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What GAO Found

From fiscal years 2010 through 2015, the U.S. Marshals Service's (USMS) largest prisoner costs were housing payments to state, local, and private prisons. For example, in fiscal year 2015 USMS spent 86 percent of its $1.4 billion in prisoner operation costs on housing. While total prisoner costs and prisoner populations decreased since fiscal year 2012, per prisoner costs increased. USMS officials attributed the increase in part to lower than expected prisoner populations, resulting in USMS not filling guaranteed bed space at certain facilities. Also, prisoner costs generally were higher in districts with larger populations and limited use of federal facilities, for which USMS does not pay. Both population and costs were highest in 5 districts along the southwest border (see figure).

United States Marshals Service District Prisoner Costs in Fiscal Year 2015

United States Marshals Service District Prisoner Costs in Fiscal Year 2015

USMS has implemented actions that it reports have continued to save prisoner-related costs from fiscal years 2010 through 2015, such as the alternatives to pre-trial detention program to reduce prisoners in USMS's custody. However, for actions with identified savings over this time period, GAO found that about $654 million of USMS's estimated $858 million in total savings is not reliable. For example, USMS identified $375 million in savings from the alternatives to pre-trial detention program for fiscal years 2010 through 2015, but did not verify the data or methodology used to develop the estimate or provide documentation supporting its reported savings for fiscal years 2012 onward. By developing reliable methods for estimating costs and validating savings, USMS would be better positioned to assess the effectiveness of its cost savings efforts.

USMS has designed systems to identify opportunities for cost efficiencies, including savings. For example, the agency requires districts to conduct annual self-assessments of their procedures to identify any deficiencies which could lead to cost savings. However, USMS cannot aggregate and analyze the results of the assessments across districts. Developing a mechanism to do so would better position USMS to identify deficiencies or develop corrective actions that could result in additional cost savings opportunities.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Department of Justice's (DOJ) USMS is responsible for managing more than 50,000 federal prisoners during criminal proceedings until their acquittal or their conviction and transfer to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to serve their sentence. USMS provides housing, clothing, food, transportation, and medical care. The USMS does not own or manage any of its own facilities and instead relies on a combination of federal, state, local, and privately-managed facilities to house and care for these prisoners. Senate Report 113-78 of the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2014 included a provision for GAO to assess the costs of housing federal inmates and detainees.

This report (1) identifies the primary costs associated with USMS prisoner operations, and the trends in spending from fiscal years 2010 through 2015; (2) assesses recent actions USMS has taken to reduce its prisoner operations costs and how much has been saved; and (3) determines systems USMS has to identify additional opportunities to save costs. GAO analyzed USMS's financial and operational data related to its prisoner operations costs from fiscal year 2010 through 2015, analyzed USMS documentation, and interviewed USMS officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that USMS develop reliable methods for estimating cost savings and validating reported savings achieved, and establish a mechanism to aggregate and analyze the results of annual district self- assessments. USMS concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Diana Maurer at (202) 512-8777 or maurerd@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In May 2016, we reported on United States Marshals Service's (USMS) actions to reduce prisoner-related costs from fiscal years 2010 through 2015. During the course of our review, we found that while USMS implemented actions that it reports have continued to save prisoner-related costs, USMS's methods to determine savings for certain actions were not reliable. For example, USMS identified $375 million in savings from the alternatives to pre-trial detention program for fiscal years 2010 through 2015, but did not verify the data or methodology used to develop the estimate or provide documentation supporting its reported savings for fiscal years 2012 onward. Consequently, we recommended that USMS direct its prisoner operations division to develop reliable methods for estimating cost savings and validating reports savings achieved. USMS concurred with our recommendation. In July 2016, USMS provided more information about how it would address the recommendation by confirming that its future cost savings estimates would be consistent with OMB guidelines for conducting benefit-cost analyses and GAO-identified practices for assessing the reliability of computer-processed data. Aligning USMS estimates with these identified practices would better position the agency to assess the effectiveness of its cost savings efforts. As USMS develops such mechanisms, we will request and consider documentation and other evidence to determine that USMS has implemented this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that costs savings estimates are reliable, the Director of the USMS should direct its Prisoner Operations Division to develop reliable methods for estimating cost savings and validating reported savings achieved.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: United States Marshals Service

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In May 2016, we reported on United States Marshals Service's (USMS) actions to design systems to help identify cost savings opportunities. During the course of our review, we found that USMS has designed several systems for identifying cost savings, including, for example, developing a strategic plan and guidance for district officials that reinforce policies to provide for the safe, secure, and cost-effective containment of its prisoners. In addition, USMS requires districts to conduct annual self-assessments of their procedures to identify any deficiencies which could lead to cost savings. However, USMS cannot aggregate and analyze the results of the assessments across districts. As a result, we recommended that USMS establish a mechanism to aggregate and analyze the results of annual district self-assessments. USMS concurred with our recommendation. In July 2016, USMS informed us that the agency will develop a method to aggregate and analyze the results of the annual district self-assessments. However, it has not provided information on its plans or timelines to implement the recommendation. As USMS develops such mechanisms, we will consider documentation and other evidence to determine that USMS has implemented this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enable USMS to more consistently identify deficiencies and monitor corrective actions, the Director of the USMS should establish a mechanism to aggregate and analyze the results of annual district self-assessments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: United States Marshals Service

 

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