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: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In October 2018, we determined that some aspects of the Smart on Crime Initiative are no longer in place. A DOJ OIG report, issued in June 2017, reviewed the Smart on Crime initiative and made recommendations to the Department to ensure that all federal prosecutors have clear and consistent guidance regarding Department charging policies. Among other things, the report noted that, after Smart on Crime was initiated, the ability of the Department to measure the impact of some of the initiative's principles was limited because it did not consistently collect data on charging decisions. One of the report's recommendations was similar to GAO's recommendation, and required all U.S. Attorneys Offices to collect charging data that will enable the Department to determine whether its charging and sentencing policies are being effectively implemented. The OIG report noted that it considered its recommendation "resolved" given the Department's response that it traditionally ensured compliance with charging policies through directing U.S. Attorneys to ensure that deviations from general charging and sentencing directives be approved by a supervisor and documented in the case file. In addition, the Department noted it examines whether U.S. Attorneys Offices have instituted processes to facilitate compliance, such as supervisory reviews of charging decisions, training on charging policies, and case reviews between or among Assistant U.S. Attorneys and their supervisors. DOJ confirmed this information in November 2018, and we believe DOJ's actions and responses are consistent with GAO's recommendation regarding data collection.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In October 2018, we determined that, based on an August, 2018 Department of Justice OIG Report, "18-04: Review of the Department's Clemency Initiative," the Clemency Initiative was discontinued. The OIG found several weaknesses in the implementation of the initiative, but noted, that in the last year of the initiative, the Department made significant strides in reforming how it managed the initiative, which expedited OPA's processing of petitions and substantially increased the number of favorable recommendations sent to the White House. These actions included increased staffing to meet the demands of the initiative, prioritizing the review of certain petitions, and streamlining the review process. DOJ confirmed its actions to us in November 2018, and we believe these actions are consistent with 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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