A new report from the Office of the Inspector General reveals that, for the five year period between 2009 and 2014, the Federal Bureau of Prisons mistakenly held 152 inmates behind bars well past the expiration of their sentences. At times, these errors cost inmates an extra year of their lives, and their freedom.
The Bureau of Prisons points out that these errors, measured as a rate, are relatively small, but I imagine that is of little consolation to the men who lost an additional year that they will never be able to get back.
The Bureau of Prisons also acknowledged that some mistakes went in the opposite direction as well, with inmates being released earlier than scheduled due to miscalculations of sentence length. Apart from the obvious risk to communities of releasing prisoners into the general population without the proper review of their cases and determination that they deserve parole or that their legally authorized sentence is complete, early releases also cause problems for the prisoners themselves.
Inmates who think they have been properly released will naturally start trying to resume their lives outside of prison, reconnecting with family and friends and trying to reenter the workforce. All this is badly disrupted when federal agents have to be dispatched to return them to custody. Imagine the shock and dismay of thinking you were free, having served your time, only to be suddenly recaptured and returned to your cell. This must be psychologically shocking, and in the case of violent offenders, could pose a real risk to the officers charged with recapturing them. Such risks would be unnecessary if the Bureau of Prisons could maintain better records to ensure that prisoners are released on time, not early or late.
This report comes at a time when many are calling for the U.S. to take a long hard look at its prison system, as well as sentencing guidelines, to better promote community safety, prison effectiveness, and mitigate the cost to taxpayers.
The U.S. currently houses nearly 200,000 federal inmates, and that’s not counting the millions in state prisons and jails. We imprison more of our own people than any other country in the world, to the point where prisons are overcrowded and unmanageable. According to a study conducted by the Government Accountability Office, federal prison population is expected to exceed the Bureau of Prisons’ capacity by 45 percent by 2018.
When an agency is housing far more inmates than it has the ability to manage, the consequences are bad for all involved. In addition to an ability to keep track of sentence times, resulting in both extended and early releases that undermine due process considerations, overcrowding results in a more dangerous environment for prisoners and guards alike.
Overcrowding is partially driven by mandatory sentences handed down at the federal level, which keep even non-violent criminals incarcerated for years at a time, irrespective of the individual circumstances of their crimes. The resulting lack of space sometimes means that some hardened criminals will not receive their deserved punishments, while the cells that could accommodate them are being used for non-violent offenders.
The taxpayers aren’t seeing any benefit from the current arrangement either. The cost of the erroneously extended sentences was close to $700,000, with another $600,000 in legal settlements to wronged inmates.
Regardless of your perspective on currently proposed legislation, or justice reform efforts in general, it should be clear that the current system is not working to benefit prisoners, guards, communities, or taxpayers. Whether your primary concern be community safety, fiscal responsibility, or justice for inmates, we should all be able to agree that reform is needed, even while disputing the details of what the details of that reform should look like.
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.