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April 20, 2009

How about some targeted clemency grants to save $100 million of federal tax dollars?

This new Politico piece, headlined "Obama to order $100 million in cuts," spotlights this latest news from the White House:

At the first Cabinet meeting of his presidency, President Obama on Monday will challenge the departments to collectively cut $100 million over the next three months, a senior administration official said.  The official said the exercise is “part of his commitment to go line by line through the budget to cut spending and reform government.”

“Agencies will be required to report back with their savings at the end of 90 days,” the official said.

Here is my suggestion for a simple way to cut $100 million of wasteful federal spending ASAP: commute the final year(s) of the prison sentences for a few non-violent offenders serving overly long federal prison terms due to mandatory sentencing statutes/guidelines.  There are now well over 200,000 federal inmates costing US taxpayers around $50,000 per year to keep incarcerated.  Commuting just the final year of the prison sentence for just the most deserving 1% of this population would, in one quick and easy step, cut $100 million in wasteful federal government spending.

Consider in this context that the retroactive application of the new reduced crack guidelines, according to the latest official USSC data, has cut over 25,000 years of scheduled federal imprisonment (over 12,500 crack offenders have received sentence reductions that have averaged 2 years in length) and thus saved federal taxpayers over $1 billion in scheduled federal incarceration costs.  I think we could and should try to save an addition $100 million by cutting some breaks to a few other federal offenders).

Some related (old and new) posts:

April 20, 2009 at 10:53 AM | Permalink


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Doug, how many of those would commit crimes that they would not have committed if not released? Is the $50K a marginal cost figure?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 20, 2009 11:01:42 AM

Professor, please define "non-violent" for me. Does it include folks who have PRIOR convictions for "violent" acts? Does it include folks who currently (or previously) plead down from "violent" acts (e.g., domestic abuse/assault) to, e.g., midemeanor battery or breach of the peace? Does it include those who received a 2 point gun enhancement? Does it include those who, while perhaps not doing "violence" themselves, were part of conpiracies that included acts of violence by coconspirators?

Posted by: anon | Apr 20, 2009 11:40:18 AM

Should domestic assault that don't result in jury really count as "violent" crimes? If so, every girl that ever slapped a boyfriend would be a violent criminal. If the answer is no, then you are firmly in the "pro-domestic violence" camp.

Posted by: S.cotus | Apr 20, 2009 11:52:22 AM

These are all good questions, though of course the same kinds of questions can (and will?) be raised about whatever other budget cuts the Obama team embraces. Cutting benefits to the needy or government regulations can (and probably will) increase crime and/or accidents at the margin.

My main point is that the criminal justice system should be subject to the same cost/benefit analysis as all other government spending. We now waste a lot of money because CJ expenditures have never been the focus of the rigorous bean counters, and this has harmed society in lots and lots of ways.

The crack retroactivity debate provides a great recent example here. When the Repubs in the House and AG Mukasey opposed making the new crack rules retroactive, nobody even noticed that they were supporting over $1 billion in additional federal CJ spending. All I want is some sensible cost talk to apply to criminal justice issues like it gets applied in other settings. But I am not holding my breath, in part because folks on both sides of the aisle benefit politically and personally from NOT doing sensible cost/benefit analysis in the criminal justice world.

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 20, 2009 11:54:40 AM

How about this example: Doug's example would include a first-time, non-violent offender who was attending OSU and 24 when convicted. He will now turn 39 in June. To answer the negative questions posed he is truly a first-time offender, the crime is truly a non-violent drug crime (not pleaded down and did not include weapons). He has continued his education while incarcerated and has an excellent support system when released. So the question posed of him reoffending, highly unlikely -- he's lost 15 years of his youth already. Plus logically if after 3 years--hypothetically- someone does reoffend haven't we still saved $150,000? Maybe those wishing to be negative will say "well his case is the abnormal one" but 5 years in the Federal Prison system taught me his case is not as abnormal as we like to convince ourself. By the way the retroactive amendment took 5 years off his sentence, however by the time the Bureau did their own adjustments with calculated good time the 5 years the judge gave him turned into 4 years and 2 months. So this person still has 3 years left, out-custody at a camp with nothing to do (educational opportunities are exhausted) but spend time and waste our tax dollars.

Posted by: spunky | Apr 20, 2009 12:39:04 PM

Surely, a non cost effective sentence is UNREASONABLE.

Posted by: Tom McGee | Apr 20, 2009 2:08:03 PM

I still have yet to understand what the deal is with 'violent crimes' and 'non violent crimes'. Assaulting a police officer is a VC but that also includes touching the cop on the shoulder or spitting at the cop. While NVCs are just as capable at violence as anyone else (or never got caught). Why can't all this be based on what the offender has done since being in prison (getting a GED, college classes, volunteer work, and other merits).

Posted by: MarkM | Apr 20, 2009 3:17:43 PM

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