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Lengthy sentences for drug offenses are “one of the key drivers” to overcrowded prisons, bursting budgets and contributing to “a state of crisis” within the federal prison system.

These conclusions were set forth by a bipartisan task force that was established by the U.S. Congress in 2014.

Its task was “to conduct an independent assessment of the federal system to identify the dynamics driving increases in the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ population and costs and produce recommendations for lasting reform.”

Named after Charles Colson – a formerly incarcerated evangelical Christian who founded Prison Fellowship – the 10-person task force included former U.S. House Reps. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Oklahoma) and Alan B. Mollohan (D-West Virginia), Jay Neal, criminal justice liaison for the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and John E. Wetzel, former prison warden and current secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Though familiar with the challenges facing the correctional system before the process began, members noted being “routinely startled by testimony illuminating the breadth of the problems and their consequences for those serving time and working within the Bureau of Prisons.”

Drug-related crimes were the leading type of new admissions (29 percent) in 2014, while 49 percent of the standing prison population was serving drug-related sentences.

From 1985 to 2014, time served for drug offenses increased from 27 months to 58 months.

One interviewee, an honorably discharged Army veteran, shared about his 1994 arrest for selling powder cocaine, which led to a 20-year mandatory sentence due to a prior conviction.

“America is awash” with these stories, the report stated.

Through research involving interviews and data analysis, the task force identified four leading issues:

1. Federal prison growth was driven largely by drug and weapon offenses.

2. Mandatory minimums drove long sentences for drug crimes.

3. Many people convicted of drug crimes have minimal or no criminal histories.

4. Mandatory minimums also drove growth in long sentences for weapon offenses.

The group offered six recommendations and provided specific steps to achieve each reform:

1. At sentencing, the federal system should reserve prison beds for those convicted of the most serious federal crimes.

Mandatory minimums for drug-related crimes should apply “only for the most serious offenses” and judges should have the ability to sentence individuals to treatment and rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

2. In prison, the federal Bureau of Prisons should promote a culture of safety and rehabilitation and ensure that programming is allocated in accordance with individual risk and needs.

Conditions to facilitate rehabilitation during incarceration should include regular family visitation and periodic risk/needs assessments.

3. Throughout the prison term, correctional policies should incentivize participation in risk-reduction programming.

“The most powerful incentive – earned time off one’s sentence – should be used to encourage participation in addiction treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, educational classes, faith-based programs and other self-betterment activities prescribed in accordance with individualized case plans,” the task force noted.

4. Prior to and following release, the federal correctional system should ensure successful reintegration by using evidence-based practices in supervision and support.

Interaction and communication between correctional facilities and community-based supervising agencies and support programs was said to be essential to increasing reintegration success rates.

5. The federal criminal justice system should enhance performance and accountability through better coordination across agencies and increased transparency.

A working group should be established to increase accountability by overseeing and reporting to Congress annually regarding the implementation of criminal justice reforms.

6. Congress should reinvest savings to support the expansion of necessary programs, supervision and treatment.

Funding should be provided to address deficiencies in staffing, available spots and other needs in rehabilitative programs.

The full report is available here.

Editor’s note: “Through the Door,”’s documentary on faith and prisons, offers congregations an overview of the challenges facing the prison system and highlights how people of faith are making a positive impact in helping the formerly incarcerated transition back into society and working to reduce recidivism.

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