When most people think of the Justice Department, they are likely to imagine the most visible parts of our job – the law enforcement agents who investigate crimes or the lawyers who prosecute them. But the department’s core responsibilities go beyond investigation and prosecution. Unlike most states, the federal government puts its law enforcement agents, criminal prosecutors, and correctional officers all in a single department. We handle every step from the start of an investigation to the end of a prison sentence. Our work to house and rehabilitate individuals incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is an important part of our responsibility and operations, accounting for 25 percent of the department’s budget every year.
The federal prison population increased by almost 800 percent between 1980 and 2013, often at a far faster rate than the Bureau of Prisons could accommodate in their own facilities. In an effort to manage the rising prison population, about a decade ago, the bureau began contracting with privately operated correctional institutions to confine some federal inmates. By 2013, as both the federal prison population and the proportion of federal prisoners in private facilities reached their peak, the bureau was housing approximately 15 percent of its population, or nearly 30,000 inmates, in privately operated prisons.
2013 was also the year that the Department of Justice launched its Smart on Crime Initiative after identifying reforms that would ensure more proportional sentences and effective use of federal resources. Today, in part as a result of that initiative, we are experiencing declining numbers in our prison population. We now have approximately 195,000 inmates in bureau or private contract facilities down from a high in 2013 of approximately 220,000. This decline in the prison population means that we can better allocate our resources to ensure that inmates are in the safest facilities and receiving the best rehabilitative services – services that increase their chances of becoming contributing members of their communities when they return from prison.
Today, I sent a memo to the Acting Director of the Bureau of Prisons directing that, as each private prison contract reaches the end of its term, the bureau should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its scope in a manner consistent with law and the overall decline of the bureau’s inmate population. This is the first step in the process of reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons. While an unexpected need may arise in the future, the goal of the Justice Department is to ensure consistency in safety, security and rehabilitation services by operating its own prison facilities.
Today’s memo reflects important steps that the bureau has already taken to reduce our reliance on private prisons, including a decision three weeks ago to end a private prison contract for approximately 1,200 beds. Taken together, these steps will reduce the private prison population by more than half from its peak in 2013 and puts the Department of Justice on a path to ensure that all federal inmates are ultimately housed at bureau facilities.