The Ins and Outs of Being Behind Bars

Posted on June 30, 2015
It doesn’t matter if orange is the new black right now—prisons will remain great fodder for television and film. Yet, what you see on the screen doesn’t always match reality. To help sort fact from fiction, today’s WatchBlog shares some of our findings on the federal inmate population. The federal inmate population has started to decline

In February 2015, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a Department of Justice (DOJ) agency, housed about 210,000 inmates in 121 institutions—more than 8 times the inmate population in 1980.

Since fiscal year 2013, however, the number of federal inmates has declined by about 8,500, the first decline in decades. Despite this decline, BOP reports that its institutions remain about 30 percent overcrowded.

GAO-12-743(Excerpted from GAO-12-743)

The jury’s out on DOJ’s initiatives to keep the inmate population declining

We recently reported on 3 DOJ initiatives to address ongoing federal incarceration challenges related to prison overcrowding, rising prison costs, and recidivism, and found weaknesses in how DOJ evaluated the success of each initiative:
  1. Smart on Crime focuses resources on the “worst of the worst” offenders and encourages alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent offenders, among other goals. However, the indicators DOJ uses to evaluate this initiative lack key elements—such as context, clarity, and measurable targets—so it’s not clear how DOJ will measure success.
  2. Clemency encourages low-level nonviolent offenders to request sentence reductions and seeks to speed up review of such requests. DOJ tracks the number of clemency petitions received, but it doesn’t measure how long the review process takes, even while it tries to expedite the review process.
  3. Reentry Services consolidates 5 BOP branches to better help offenders reenter society and prevent recidivism. However, BOP hasn’t prioritized evaluations of all 18 national reentry programs and therefore doesn’t know their impact.

Supervised release and preparing inmates to reenter society

Changes have also occurred for federal inmates reentering society. In 1984, parole was abolished for offenders convicted of federal crimes committed on or after November 1, 1987, and replaced with supervised release—a new form of post-incarceration community supervision. This change gave judges the authority to decide at the time of sentencing whether offenders would serve a set term of supervised release after serving a set term in prison. As shown in the figure below, it also resulted in a significant decline in federal offenders on or eligible for parole under the jurisdiction of the United States Parole Commission, an agency within DOJ that makes parole decisions for federal offenders.

GAO-15-359(Excerpted from GAO-15-359)

For more information, check out our Key Issues page on the federal prison system, as well as our recommendations to DOJ on how to improve federal prisons.