GAO Examines How BOP Can Reduce Prisoners’ Time in Prison

By Derek Gilna

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a study on the
Bureau of Prisons’ authority to shorten a federal prisoner’s sentence. The
Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was found to have three principal authorities with
respect to sentence reduction: prisoners can earn up to twelve months off for
successfully completing the Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program (RDAP);
eligible prisoners can be transferred to community corrections for up to the
final 12 months of their sentences; and prisoners can theoretically earn up to
54 days a year for good conduct while incarcerated.

Unfortunately, according to the GAO’s review of data from 2009 to 2011, due to
budgetary constraints, mismanagement or bureaucratic indifference, the BOP does
not fully utilize all of the sentence-reduction resources at its disposal. As a
result, federal prisoners spend more time away from their families and
communities, which costs the taxpayers millions of dollars and contributes to
prison overcrowding.

RDAP consists of coursework and counseling that addresses both drug and alcohol
abuse. According to the GAO the problem of substance abuse among prisoners is
staggering, as the “BOP estimates that 40 percent [of those] entering federal
custody have a substance abuse disorder….” Despite that fact, only 19,000
prisoners were able to participate in the program during the time period
reviewed. The BOP currently houses approximately 217,000 prisoners and operates
at 38 percent over capacity.

Due to overcrowding and other program inefficiencies, such as an inability to
hire staff or fill vacancies in a timely manner, very few prisoners who
complete RDAP receive the full 12-month sentence reduction authorized by
statute and BOP program statements.

According to the GAO, “during fiscal years 2009 through 2011, of the 15,302
[prisoners] … who completed RDAP and were eligible for a sentence reduction,
2,846 (19 percent) received the maximum reduction and the average reduction was
8.0 months.” BOP officials have acknowledged that most RDAP participants do not
receive the full amount of time off because they have less than 12 months to
serve on their sentences by the time they finish the program.

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