Congress Takes on Swollen Prison Populations

     WASHINGTON (CN) - The United States imprisons almost three times as many black people than were jailed in South Africa during Apartheid, Rep. Spencer Bachus said Thursday in a subcommittee oversight hearing on the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
     Both sides of the aisle raised alarming statistics like this point by the Alabama Republican over the course of the swift, hour-long meeting of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations.
     Their comments highlighted a national problem lurking in the shadow cast by immigration and health care reform.
     "There has to be an effort to reduce the population," BOP Director Charles Samuels Jr. told the subcommittee.
     Bachus noted that the U.S. prison population lingered around 24,000 for most of the 1900s until swelling to nearly a quarter of a million inmates in the 1980s, a staggering symptom of the failed War on Drugs.
     Rep. Bobby Scott, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, persuaded Bachus to co-sponsor a House prison reform bill with him and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.
     The Public Safety Enhancement Act aims to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal prison system through streamlined offender risk-and-needs assessments, individual risk-reduction incentives and rewards, and risk and recidivism reduction.
     "The United States locks up more of its population than any other country in the world," Scott said, noting that BOP eats $6 billion annually from taxpayers.
     Samuels, the BOP official, noted that the recidivism rate for state and federal prisons is approximately 40 percent.
     Scott said the BOP budget can be significantly reduced by increasing home confinement, a simple act that could save taxpayers $100 million annually.
     During questioning, Samuels also said that 5 percent of the prison population is composed of violent offenders, while "immigration offenders" make up 11 percent. Samuels also noted that 80 percent of released federal inmates don't return.
     "Over 90 percent of inmates will be released into society and become our neighbors," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.     
     Emphasizing the dangers of prison overcrowding, Goodlatte pointed to the February stabbing of correction officer Eric Williams by an inmate with a homemade weapon at U.S. Penitentiary Canaan.
     Subcommittee members pressed Samuels on other issues including prison staff safety, the cost of making a phone call - 23 cents a minute for domestic calls from prison, whether prisons subject juveniles to solitary confinement, and allegations of misconduct at individual prisons.
     Though Samuels did not have many of the requested statistics, like the percentage of the current prison population associated with child-welfare programs or a breakdown of what crimes non-U.S. citizens commit, he promised to do the research and submit his answers in the future.
     Both parties agreed that the bloated prison population creates a dangerous environment for both prison staff and inmates that spills into the public, creating public safety concerns.