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Justice Department Has No Idea If Their Alternatives To Incarceration Work

The Justice Department is not evaluating the performance of pretrial diversion programs, residential re-entry centers, and home confinement, according to congressional testimony from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Under President Barack Obama administration, the Justice Department sought to reduce booming federal prison populations by providing alternatives to incarceration for people with low-level nonviolent offenses.

Although federal prison populations and recidivism rates declined slightly in recent years, overcrowding remains a major issue, and there are still far too many people returning to prison. Forty-nine percent of people released in 2005 were rearrested, 32 percent were re-convicted, and 25 percent were re-incarcerated within eight years.

Diana Maurer, director of GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice Office, delivered her remarks [PDF] to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on December 13. Her testimony came as GEO Group, CoreCivic, and other private prison companies dominate these areas of the legal system.

Maurer told Congress the Department of Justice is not identifying, obtaining, and tracking data on pretrial diversion program outcomes. These are programs which give people an opportunity to avoid prosecution and incarceration for certain offenses if they complete a program, such as substance abuse treatment.

She said the department has more work to do in shifting prosecution priorities and reforming sentencing in ways that eliminate unfair disparities.

Some of these efforts undertaken by Obama as part of its Smart On Crime initiative were rolled back by new guidelines issued by Donald Trump’s presidential administration.

According to Maurer, the Justice Department is not tracking the amount of time it takes for clemency petitions to go through review, which makes it difficult to assess whether there are processes that contribute to unnecessary delays which should be corrected.

The Justice Department established a plan for evaluating the effectiveness of residential reentry programs and is working to improve cost controls by requiring contractors to submit separate prices for reentry center beds and home confinement services. But without a way to measure their performance, it is impossible to know their effect on recidivism rates and whether they are helping people successfully reenter society.

Maurer said to the committee that “knowing the outcomes of these efforts can help [Bureau Of Prisons] adjust its policies and procedures, and ultimately optimize their benefits.”

Private prison companies faced enormous public backlash for their inhumane treatment of people held in the state and federal prisons and immigrant detention centers they operate. They responded by cashing in on treatment and rehabilitation through billions of dollars in mergers and acquisitions in this space.

GEO Group, for example, operates pretrial diversion programs and residential reentry centers. They also profit from home confinement services, where people are placed under house arrest and subject to curfews, random staff visits, and electronic monitoring.

The Justice Department’s ignorance of how these efforts perform is ideal for contractors. It gives contractors an opening for more business without having to prove that their lucrative services actually provide the support needed to reduce recidivism.

The lack of data on how these programs work also obscures the degree to which incarceration is shifted to other locations outside of traditional prison facilities.

Altogether, conditions are perfect for contractors, which already have lengthy records of abuse and corruption.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.