Although drug offenders remain the single largest category of federal prisoners, thousands have to wait months for drug education or rehabilitation because of a lack of resources. / jupiterimages.com
Although drug offenders represent the single-largest category of prisoners in the burgeoning federal prison system, thousands wait months to begin drug education or rehabilitation because of staff shortages and limited resources, according to federal investigators.
More than 51,000 inmates were on waiting lists in 2011 – some up to three months – for basic drug-education programs, far more than the 31,803 who were enrolled, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
The report, released this fall, focused primarily on severe overcrowding in the system that houses 218,000 inmates, nearly 40% over capacity. A troubling byproduct of that crowding, investigators found, was a crushing need for more access to critical rehabilitation programs, some of which serve as pathways to early release.
Waiting lists were so long for the bureau’s Residential Drug Abuse Program, which provides sentence reductions of one year for inmates who complete it, that only 25% of graduates gained entry with at least a year left on their prison terms to fully benefit from the reduced sentence.
“These are important programs, because so many people come into the system with substance abuse problems,” said David Maurer, the primary author of the GAO review. “These programs can help in the whole re-entry process.”
Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Ed Ross said the number of inmates on the waiting lists and the time spent waiting for treatment have begun to decline.
“To the extent the budget allows, we will continue to add treatment staff to meet the needs of the increasing inmate population, and in the future, we expect to reduce the amount of time an inmate is wait-listed for treatment,” Ross said. “Reducing the time spent waiting to enter treatment will allow for longer sentence reductions at the back end for non-violent eligible inmates.”
The federal system’s struggle to keep pace with its drug offender population continues as some of the largest state prison systems, including California and Texas, have been increasingly diverting drug and other offenders to treatment or less costly programs outside prison.
Led by its growing population of drug offenders (more than 90,000 prisoners convicted of drug-related crimes are held by the federal Bureau of Prisons), the federal prison population has increased by 50% since 2000, according to the GAO. The Bureau of Prisons’ $6.6 billion budget is second only to the FBI, among agencies of the U.S. Justice Department.
Analysts said the glut of drug offenders and limited access to rehabilitation require dramatic changes in how the criminal justice system deals with drug-related crimes, from addicts to dealers.
“Until we re-evaluate policies on drug abuse, nothing changes,” said Roger Werholtz, former director of the Kansas Department of Corrections. “There needs to be a modified approach that includes treatment outside of prison and penalties that don’t make addicts and dealers career prisoners. We are getting a very poor return on our investment.”
Faced with a shrinking state budget, Kansas was one of several states that have taken steps in the past five years to reduce prison populations by diverting non-violent offenders to less-costly treatment and probation sentences that stressed job training.
Public budget troubles have been so severe that even Texas, long known for dispensing the harshest penalties, is undergoing dramatic changes in the state criminal justice system.
“This is not rocket science,” said Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, Democratic chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
In the past year, he said, the state has reduced its prison population from 156,000 to 152,000 largely by diverting drug and other non-violent offenders to programs outside prison walls.
He said the federal government should consider reinstituting parole and amending mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug-related crimes.
“We have a responsibility to release people in better condition than we received them,” Whitmire said. “That involves making better choices about who goes to prison.”