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Report: Prison reforms estimated to cost $346M over 10 years

Reforms are expected to reduce the number of federal prisoners by 53,000

By Andrea Drusch
McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — A plan to massively beef up federal prison rehabilitation programs being pushed by President Donald Trump and congressional leaders from both parties will cost taxpayers roughly $346 million over the next 10 years, according to a report released Friday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

It is expected to reduce the number of federal prisoners by 53,000. The Bureau of Prisons estimates there are roughly 180,000 current federal inmates. Most reductions would occur in the first year, due to the law’s retroactive sentencing changes.

Texas implemented similar reforms to its state prison system more than a decade ago, saving more than $4 billion between 2006 and 2016, according to the criminal justice reform advocacy group Right on Crime.

Those savings — after an initial investment of $241 million in rehabilitation programs — have served as the inspiration for similar reform efforts in states like Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina.

“This all started because people wanted to save money,” Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, which has been a major proponent of the reforms, said at a news conference about the bill Friday.

“They came for the savings but they stayed for the salvation,” Holden said of the states that followed Texas’ lead.

Senators are expected to discuss and vote on the plan, called the First Step Act, early next week.

Though it’s expected to pass with the help of Republicans and Democrats, some of the plan’s biggest detractors have complained about not having seen an estimate of the costs.

Friday’s CBO report chalked the price tag up to the release of federal prisoners who could soon take advantage of government programs.

“Under current law, prisoners are generally are ineligible to receive benefits from several federal programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and the health insurance marketplaces, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” said the report. “By accelerating the release of prisoners, CBO estimates that the legislation would increase the number of people receiving benefits from those programs.”

Right on Crime’s Marc Levin told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Friday that while states’ savings estimates would not have accounted for newly eligible federal benefits, the CBO’s report did not factor in federal taxes the released prisoners would pay if they get jobs.

The CBO also did not assess savings from recidivism reduction, something Texas and other states have experienced since implementing their reforms, Levin said. He suggested as well that fewer prison staffers could be necessary after incarceration rates decrease.

In Texas, lawmakers from both parties implemented the reforms in 2007 after the state’s Legislative Budget Board estimated it would need an additional $2 billion by 2012 to fund its prison system.

The results helped it shutter eight prisons, with several more expected to close in the coming years, according to Right on Crime.

Between 2006 and 2016, the state’s incarceration level dropped more than 20 percent, while the crime rate has dropped roughly 30 percent, the group says.

The plan Senate leaders expect to vote on next week would put money toward anti-recidivism programs such as job training, education and faith-based classes in federal prisons. Prisoners who participate could earn credits to be released from prison early and serve the remainder of their sentence in home confinement or halfway houses.

The plan also gives judges more discretion when sentencing nonviolent offenders, particularly for drug offenses, aimed at keeping reducing incarceration levels.