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March 21, 2023

GAO releases big report concluding "Bureau of Prisons Should Improve Efforts to Implement its Risk and Needs Assessment System"

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released this big new Report to Congressional Committees fully titled "Federal Prisons: Bureau of Prisons Should Improve Efforts to Implement its Risk and Needs Assessment System."  The full report runs over 100 pages, but it starts with "Highlights" that include this text:

Why GAO Did This Study

Approximately 45 percent of people released from a federal prison are rearrested or return within 3 years of their release.  The First Step Act included certain requirements for DOJ and BOP aimed to reduce recidivism, including requiring the development of a system to assess the recidivism risk and needs of incarcerated people.  It also required BOP to provide incarcerated people with programs and activities to address their needs and if eligible, earn time credits.

The First Step Act required GAO to assess the DOJ and BOP’s implementation of certain requirements.  This report addresses the extent to which DOJ and BOP implemented certain First Step Act requirements related to the (1) risk and needs assessment system, (2) identification and evaluation of programs and activities, and (3) application of time credits.

GAO reviewed legislation and DOJ and BOP documents; analyzed 2022 BOP data; and interviewed DOJ and BOP headquarters officials and BOP’s employee union.  GAO also conducted non-generalizable interviews with officials from four BOP regional offices facilities, selected to ensure a mix of different facility characteristics.

What GAO Found

Since the enactment of the First Step Act of 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) developed a risk assessment tool to measure an incarcerated person’s risk of recidivism.  In addition, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) modified its existing needs assessment system to identify incarcerated people’s needs, that if addressed may reduce their recidivism risk. However, BOP does not have readily-available, complete, and accurate data to determine if assessments were conducted within required First Step Act and internal timeframes. As of October 2022, BOP plans to implement monitoring efforts to assess First Step Act requirements, but has not determined if these efforts will measure whether assessments are completed on time.  Without such data and monitoring, BOP is not in a position to determine if staff complete assessments on time, which are necessary for earning First Step Act time credits.  These time credits may allow incarcerated people to reduce the amount of time they spend in a BOP facility.

BOP created a plan to evaluate its evidence-based programs, as required by the First Step Act.  However, the plan did not include quantifiable goals that align with certain First Step Act requirements, or have clear milestone dates.  By including such elements in its plan, BOP will be better positioned to ensure its evaluations are conducted in a timely manner, and align with the First Step Act.  BOP has some data on who participates in its programs and activities, but does not have a mechanism to monitor if it offers a sufficient amount. Without such a mechanism, BOP cannot ensure it is meeting the incarcerated population’s needs.  Further, while BOP offers unstructured productive activities for which incarcerated people may earn time credits, BOP has not documented a complete list or monitored them.  Without doing so, BOP cannot ensure it provides transparent information.

BOP’s procedure for applying time credits has evolved over time.  Initially, BOP did not have data necessary to track time credits and developed an interim approach in January 2022.  Subsequently, BOP implemented an automated-calculation application for time credits that took into account factors the interim procedure did not.  As a result, some incarcerated people may have had their time credits reduced.  In November 2022, BOP issued its First Step Act Time Credits program statement, with new procedures.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making eight recommendations for BOP to improve its implementation of the First Step Act, including collecting data, ensuring its evaluation plan has goals and milestones, having monitoring mechanisms, and tracking unstructured productive activities. BOP concurred with six recommendations, but did not concur with two.  GAO continues to believe these are valid.

March 21, 2023 at 06:29 PM | Permalink


Fiddling with government processes is the easy part. Changing the criminal's deficient conscience is the hard part, so that's the one which, while most ignored, is the most in need of doing.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 21, 2023 6:53:35 PM


I agree that changing the thinking and the behavior is what is needed. And now that you've identified the problem, what is your solution? Is deprivation of freedom and liberty (i.e., prison) the most effective way of accomplishing the goal? Seems we've been using this method for quite some time now. How has it worked out? A rousing success?

Posted by: SG | Mar 22, 2023 4:54:51 AM

SG --

"I agree that changing the thinking and the behavior is what is needed. And now that you've identified the problem, what is your solution? Is deprivation of freedom and liberty (i.e., prison) the most effective way of accomplishing the goal?"

Government programs, whether prison or rehab, have a role to play, be we need to be realistic about how much they're going to work. The evidence is that neither works very well for changing long term behavior. Government simply does not have the means to change a person's conscience -- the one thing that actually does work. That has to come from inside him.

For the short term, yes, incarceration works because it incapacitates the criminal from victimizing people living in civil society (which is where 99.5% of them live). We have at least 20 years of recent evidence for this. From 1990-2010, incarceration grew substantially and crime plummeted. No sane person thinks these are unrelated.

There is no period in our history in which crime has been eradicated or come close to being eradicated. But that's not because of government policy. It's because of human nature. Some people can be turned around, yes. But the data show that most can't be and aren't, which is not exactly a surprise since, by the time you get to your twenties, most of your most important attitudes about obeying rules and respecting other people have already been formed.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 24, 2023 5:29:04 PM

"Some people can be turned around, yes. But the data show that most can't be and aren't"

Bill -

Thanks for your response.

I understand your point of view, however this "how to effectively change people's consciences" could possibly be an area just a tad bit outside of your wheelhouse (although I do hold out the possibility that you may have some knowledge, education, and experience here).

People who are (or who at one time were) immersed in lives of crime, drug addiction, etc., and lacked any moral compass whatsoever (such as myself who in the mid-60s had a nasty drug habit) can and do change. During my rehabilitation process, I witnessed literally hundreds of hard-core criminals/drug addicts (many who were at one time incarcerated but did not 'change their conscience') turn their lives around.
Many of them today are contributing members of society, raising families, paying taxes, and some even becoming attorneys (and even criminal defense investigators, such as myself).

The fact that "government programs" within federal prisons have largely failed is illustrative that those managing such programs lack the competency and will to effectively employ proven effective methods that would attain the goals we seek.

The federal "residential drug abuse programs" (RDAPs) are largely ineffective because of this incompetency and lack of will, and other factors. The administrators of RDAPs hold a minimum understanding as to the concept of "therapeutic communities" (RDAPs employ this 'model' but do so very poorly to the point of being highly ineffective, thus resulting in very high recidivism rates). Counselors who staff these programs lack the essential training and education as to the 'therapeutic community' concept. This, coupled with internal prison politics, budget constraints, and (believe it or not) bias against those incarcerated, as well as some other factors inform us as to why such programs fail.

Interestingly enough, the first employment of a 'outside rehabilitation program' invited to set up shop within a prison dates back to about 1963 when Synanon (the first therapeutic community for addicts/alcoholics) was invited to set up their program in the Nevada State Prison (with very hardcore inmates). The results were remarkable, and other prisons, including the federal prison at Terminal Island in California, soon duplicated Nevada's efforts, and did so successfully. The key here is that the programs (such as Synanon) used their own 'staff' (former criminals and addicts) and not prison staff. This made an enormous difference.

Similar programs (utilizing the 'therapeutic community' concept) are currently employed in some California prisons (run by Synanon offshoots such as Delancey Street, Amity House, Walden House).

People can and do change Bill. It's just that prisons are not a very good setting for this to happen. And while protecting society from the most violent through imprisonment is a common-sense band-aid approach, it is not an effective method long-term, especially when one aims to "change one's conscience".

I look forward to a continuing discussion of this subject with you. This is fertile ground to debate and while we may approach such issues from opposite/different directions, I believe there is common ground upon which we can land.

Posted by: SG | Mar 24, 2023 11:51:39 PM

SG --

Thanks for your response. One of the reasons I asked who you are was curiosity about the very things you discuss here. I appreciate that.

You are correct that I have almost no experience tying to rehabilitate people. Most of my career was simply as a brief writer for DOJ. Eventually I got some political appointments, but none involved rehab.

There is one thing I have a lot of experience with, however, and that's the government. I'm not a libertarian and I don't reflexively disparage the government, but I'm well aware of its limitations. Trying to change a person's heart is high on the list of things the government (or any other institution) is exceptionally bad at doing. I'm not a young person anymore, and everything I've learned about life tells me that, after about age 20, people very seldom change their fundamental outlook on life, including their basic honesty, empathy and appreciation of the fact that others have exactly the same feelings they do.

I understand that this is hardly a complete answer to you, but I wanted to say something to let you know that I had seen and appreciate your note.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 27, 2023 2:37:15 AM

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