Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sequester effects on federal prisons, immigration detention

Grits finds the expressed outrage over releasing immigration detainees because of the looming sequester misplaced. Texas Congressman Lamar Smith took the opportunity to take a politicized swipe at the Obama Administration, declaring it “either incompetent and unable to prioritize spending, or reckless. Neither is acceptable.” Ironically, though, prioritizing spending is precisely what's going on here ... for once.

The episode made me think of the panel on immigration detention your correspondent moderated at the UT LBJ-School last fall where former state Rep. Jerry Madden, who before this session chaired the House Corrections Committee, argued for saving money by limiting detention of asylum seekers and low-risk immigration detainees, urging the feds to adopt lessons on saving money spent on incarceration that drove Texas' 2007 probation reforms. That's exactly what's happening now thanks to fiscal necessity rather than good public policy. But sequester-imposed austerity makes the important point that immigration detention is not free - even if borrowed budget dollars at times make it seem as though spending on it is unlimited - and is now forcing the feds to engage in cost-benefit analyses regarding which immigrants should be incarcerated while they wait for backlogged courts to process cases.

More concerning than the politicized debate over low-risk immigration releases are the $338 million in cuts to the federal Bureau of Prisons, which has no authority to increase releases to accommodate its reduced budget. According to Business Insider:
The Bureau oversees 188 facilities and contracts 16 facilities out to private prison companies. Currently, there is a grand total of 217,249 inmates in the federal prison system, a number BOP  expects to rise to 229,300 by the end of 2013. In 2012, the BOP had a budget of $6.6 billion, with 41,310 employees. Correctional officers make up around half of the staff, with 19,756 employees in 2012. 

According to DOJ, the sequester budget cuts will result in 5 percent reduction in the Bureau's workforce, which will be achieved by freezing future hiring and furloughing 36,700 staff for an average of 12 days. This means that almost every employee will have to go home without pay for some time, leaving BOP to function at unnecessarily low security levels. 

Attorney General Eric Holder indicated that this reduction in force would endanger the lives of staff and inmates. 

According to the Attorney General, the BOP will have to implement full or partial lock downs across the board. In a letter to Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Holder said "This would leave inmates idle, increasing the likelihood of inmate misconduct, violence, and other risks to correctional workers and inmates."

Complicating all of this is the fact that the federal prison system is already severely over capacity.
According to the 2012 Justice Department annual report, the system is 38 percent overcapacity, a problem that the Department has identified as a major weakness.
Holder has said the Department of Justice will be forced to cancel funding for rehabilitation programs and staffing, but, "To be blunt, sequestration means less money, not fewer inmates." The immigration system can safely adjust to lower funding levels. The federal prison system, OTOH, will be screwed six ways from Sunday.


John C. Key MD said...

I'm sorry to see you swallow the bait on this one. The "sequester" is first and foremost a political game, and Congressman Smith has just as much right to play in the mud with it as does the Obama administration.

Everyone can see that the sequester funds are an infinitesmally small part of the entire federal budget, and whichever ox gets gored is a political decision more than a policy one.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

In general, FM, the "sequester" doesn't actually bother me. As mentioned in the post, in the case of ICE it's forcing them to do things I thought they should be doing anyway. For the BOP the issues are more significant from a purely pragmatic perspective, but it doesn't bother me if they forego building five new prisons this year. For that matter, I won't shed too many tears because they have one aircraft carrier instead of two deployed in the Persian Gulf.

That said, it's not exactly correct to compare sequester cuts to "the entire federal budget" because entitlements, etc., are off the table. So the cuts are concentrated in a smaller subset of programs and as I understand it aren't directly comparable to that top-line number.

Unknown said...

"That said, it's not exactly correct to compare sequester cuts to "the entire federal budget" because entitlements, etc., are off the table. So the cuts are concentrated in a smaller subset of programs and as I understand it aren't directly comparable to that top-line number."

I am not sure at all what you are trying to say. In any case, reguardless what the sequester cuts are compared to, if the Federal Government can not argree on such miniscuule decreases in spending, what chance is there in any future compromise that will be necessary to pull the country back from total economic collapse.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"I am not sure at all what you are trying to say."

Just that "the entire federal budget" is the wrong denominator. The places on the non-military side of the budget they can cut are more limited.

Unknown said...

Your clarification is very telling of what you see the role of the Federal Government to be in our lives. There is plenty of waste to go around.

RAS said...

Can you trust the numbers given? How much do fed prison employees make now? If half of the cuts are to defense, doesn't that leave about 22 billion in cuts for over 1 trillion worth of gov't?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

EG, my clarification @ 2:20 made no normative statement about the government's role. It was a comment about math and the practical aspects of implementing sequestration.

RAS, if the non-military cuts are $22 billion (I don't myself know the exact number), they have to come from somewhere. I realize everybody wants them to only come from programs they personally dislike instead of across the board, but that's not how the deal was struck.

Robert Langham said...

It's hard to understand that if the federal budget is still MORE than it was LAST year, (even with the sequester), why they have to cut anything at all.

DEWEY said...

Are the "congress critters" taking a pay cut ? (No need to answer, I know they aren't !!)

rodsmith said...

i couldnt' get over that one set of numbers from the military side

628Million dollars for 78 patriot missiles. That's 8Million a missile!

That is friggin retarded for a anti-missile missle!

I doubt the missle company is paying the workers 100k an hour!

Anonymous said...

For the last four years, the idea has been to borrow and spend and not worry about tomorrow. It makes sense to these progressives to put ourselves in hock to the China, to give away our future. After all, Obama is a transformative figure. Some people are irate at any suggestion that we should start being responsible.

If you throw money at people, they wont ask where it came from.