Federal Bureau of Prisons: Methods for Estimating Incarceration and Community Corrections Costs and Results of the Elderly Offender Pilot

GAO-12-807R Published: Jul 27, 2012. Publicly Released: Jul 27, 2012.
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What GAO Found

In summary, BOP uses different factors in estimating the daily costs of its facilities and community corrections and incorporating certain additional factors would increase the daily cost per inmate for its facilities. Specifically, BOP estimates daily costs per inmate for its prison facilities using operational costs such as staff salaries and training, inmate food, and medical supplies, among other things, but does not include factors such as construction of new prisons, certain modernization and repair (M&R) projects, or depreciation of its existing facilities. According to BOP, these M&R projects and depreciation are incorporated into budget requests, financial statements, and a user fee BOP computes to bill states for the full costs of housing state prisoners. Adding these costs into BOP’s estimates would raise the costs from between $4.39 and $4.82 per day per inmate for the last 3 fiscal years. For community corrections, BOP estimates daily costs using the contract per diem rates paid to the private companies that operate RRCs and monitor inmates on home detention and the costs of management and oversight by BOP Community Corrections officials and subtracts out subsistence fees paid by inmates in RRCs and on home detention. As we reported in February 2012, contractors are not required by law to report various components of their costs, a fact that, according to BOP officials, makes it difficult to identify all the factors that may account for variation between BOP’s costs of operating prison facilities and the costs of operating community corrections. However, BOP officials anticipated that an ongoing pilot to separate contract pricing for in-house beds and home detention services would likely inform BOP about the prices of each of these major components of community corrections.

Few inmates were eligible for the Elderly Offender Pilot and BOP estimated that the Pilot achieved no costs savings. However, we identified limitations in BOP’s evaluation of the Pilot and cost estimates that raise questions about the reliability of the evaluation for estimating future costs and informing policy decisions. Specifically, statutory requirements limited the number of offenders eligible to participate in the Pilot. Seventy-one of the 855 inmates who applied for the pilot met the criteria and were placed on home detention. According to BOP estimates, the Pilot achieved no cost savings and actually cost the agency $540,631 above what would have been spent had the inmates remained in BOP facilities. However, we identified limitations in BOP’s cost estimates and evaluation, and thus the results may not be reliable for informing future policy decisions. For example, while BOP knows what it paid RRCs to monitor Pilot participants on home detention, we reported in February 2012 that it does not know the exact cost of home detention, since those costs are not separated from the overall cost of the RRC contract. BOP is revisiting pricing for these services in responding to our recommendation, but it does not know what it would pay for home detention services if Congress continued or expanded a program of early release to home detention for elderly inmates. As a result, these limitations raise questions about the reliability of BOP’s evaluation for estimating future costs.

Why GAO Did This Study

This letter responds to congressional request following the issuance of our February 2012 report, Bureau of Prisons: Eligibility and Capacity Impact Use of Flexibilities to Reduce Inmates' Time in Prison, that we provide additional information on the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) methods for estimating costs of housing inmates in BOP facilities, Residential Re-entry Centers (RRC), and home detention, as well as the evaluation of and results of the Elderly Offender Pilot Program (the Pilot) and any cost savings to the federal government. Our briefing addresses the following questions: (1) How does BOP estimate the daily cost of operating BOP facilities of different security levels and community corrections? (2) What are the final results of the Elderly Offender Pilot Program, including any cost savings identified by BOP, and to what extent can these results be used for policy decisions?

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