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US: Review Rapid Growth of the Federal Correctional System

Letter to Congressmen Frank Wolf and Chaka Fattah

Human Rights Watch and 36 other organizations sent a letter to Congressmen Frank Wolf and Chaka Fattah, chairman and ranking member of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. The letter expresses support for the creation of a task force to review the rapidly growing federal correctional system. The text of the letter is below.


The Honorable Frank Wolf
US House of Representatives
233 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Chaka Fattah
US House of Representatives
2301 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Re: Reviewing the Growth of the Federal Correctional System

Dear Chairman Wolf and Ranking Member Fattah:

We the undersigned organizations write to support your call for a systematic review of the rapidly growing federal correctional system, and to support the funding of a task force to undertake this crucial and timely review.

We share your concerns about the unprecedented growth of the federal prison system. As reported by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the federal prison population, which had stayed steady at about 24,000 prisoners each year between 1950 and 1980, began a massive expansion in the 1980s. From 1980 onwards, the federal prison population grew at an average rate of 6,100 new prisoners every year. The federal prison population has grown by an astonishing 790 percent since 1980 and is now operating at almost 40 percent over capacity.

According to CRS, this growth has been driven by policy changes, including increased mandatory minimum sentencing, new federal criminal offenses, and the elimination of parole. Other factors include a failure to invest in prison reentry and recidivism reduction programs; underuse of compassionate release programs; underuse of good time credit programs; a growth in federal crimes that duplicate state-level offenses; failure to grant retroactivity under the Fair Sentencing Act; greater prosecutions of low-level drug offenders; excessive sentences for non-violent offenses; and a vast expansion of criminal prosecutions of immigration offenses.

Congress is becoming aware of uncontrolled growth in the federal correctional system. The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which would restore flexibility to federal judges to issue sentences below mandatory minimums, has been sponsored in the Senate by Senators Paul and Leahy and in the House by Representatives Scott and Massie. The House Judiciary Committee has also established a task force to specifically attempt to address the issue of overcriminalization.

These are important measures, but alone are insufficient. A comprehensive review—one that considers federal challenges as well as successful state-level initiatives—is necessary to try to rein in a ballooning and unaffordable federal prison system. Prisons now consume over a quarter of the Justice Department’s budget, which endangers other funding for law enforcement programs that keep the public safe.

We support the appropriation of $1,000,000 in the Fiscal Year 2014 CJS appropriations bill to fund a task force on federal corrections, and we hope to be able to work with your staff to help explore ways to move forward with this comprehensive review. We will share this letter of support with Attorney General Holder, requesting that the Justice Department play a supportive role in this effort.

We would welcome the opportunity to meet to discuss this further. Antonio Ginatta at Human Rights Watch will be in touch with your office to arrange a meeting with our organizations.



The Alliance for Unitive Justice

American Civil Liberties Union

American Probation and Parole Association

Blacks in Law Enforcement of America

Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth

Campaign for Youth Justice

Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School

Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers

CitiWide Harm Reduction

Criminal Justice Advocacy for People with Mental Illness

CURE Illinois

Drug Policy Alliance

Drug Policy Committee of the National Lawyers Guild

Drug Policy Forum of Texas

Drug Reform Coordination Network

Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Families Against Mandatory Minimums


Fellowship of Reconciliation

Grassroots Leadership

Human Rights Defense Center

Human Rights Watch

International Community Corrections Association

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children

Legal Voice

NAMA Recovery

National Association for Public Health Policy

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

National Legal Aid & Defender Association

A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing)

Prison Policy Initiative

Remove Intoxicated Drivers

The Sentencing Project

United Church of Christ / Justice and Witness Ministries

West Virginia CURE

Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER)


cc:        Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.
            US Department of Justice
            950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
            Washington, DC 20530-0001


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