Yesterday, Grassroots Leadership board member Megan Quattlebaum’s piece in the Huffington Post called out the federal government, and specifically the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), for seriously slacking on criminal justice reform. Her post, “States Lead - Will the Feds Follow?”, shines a light on the fact that while states across the country are taking steps toward progress, the federal government is shamefully lagging behind.
One way they have fallen behind is in the treatment of women prisoners. While states like Iowa and Washington are putting the concept of “gender responsive” prison programming into practice, the BOP has closed the only minimum security facility for women in the Northeast, converting it to a prison for men only. As a result, some women were transferred far from their families and communities, making it particularly difficult for children to maintain connections to their incarcerated mothers.
Quattlebaum goes on to say that the BOP is not entirely without power to reduce some of this harm. “Specifically,” she writes, “the BOP ought to use its authority under the Second Chance Act to release eligible women into halfway houses for the final twelve months of their sentences and to home confinement for the final six months. By exercising that authority, the BOP could reduce overcrowding, improve educational opportunities for inmates, and strengthen family relationships.” Check out this Liman Yale Law School Report for an in-depth look at the hardships faced by these women as a result of the BOP’s actions.
In addition to making poor decisions that are harmful to women in the justice system, the federal government is also trailing many states in reducing its prison population. Despite a handful of progressive initiatives in recent years, such as the Fair Sentencing Act, the federal prison population remains on the rise.
We can point to a big reason why that’s the case.
Nearly 90,000 people were sentenced to federal prison and jails in fiscal year 2013 for crossing the border. For the last four years, border crossing has been the most prosecuted federal offense, surpassing drug offenses. Every day in federal courts along the Southwest border, hundreds of migrants are shackled, charged, convicted and sentenced en masse under “Operation Streamline” — a policy that mandated that nearly all border crossers along the U.S.-Mexico border be criminally prosecuted if apprehended without proper documentation. Ending “Operation Streamline” would go a long way toward reducing the federal prison population.
The federal government should be leading the way in criminal justice reform. Yet, they are failing in more ways than one. As Quattlebaum put it, “the states are showing the way; it's time for the feds to follow.”