Crime rates in the United States have dropped substantially since their peak in the early 1990s, and, while remaining above historical norms, the nation’s incarceration rate has receded as well. At the federal level, the FIRST STEP Act signed by President Trump and the Smart on Crime initiatives of the Obama Administration have helped bend the curve of imprisonment: after reaching a high of nearly 220,000 in 2013, the federal prison population now stands at 175,000, a drop of 20 percent. Yet there is broad agreement across the political spectrum that more must be done to make communities safe and guarantee justice—not just by states and localities, where the majority of the criminal justice system operates, but also by the federal government, which runs the country’s largest correctional system and helps set the tone of the national conversation. Recognizing this growing thirst for strategies that work better and cost less, the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) dedicated its first independent task force to defining an agenda for action at the federal level. Through deliberations spanning the second half of 2019, the Task Force on Federal Priorities worked to craft a consensus view of the actionable, politically viable steps that the federal government can take now and in the near future to produce the greatest improvements in public safety and the administration of justice. The Task Force was chaired by former congressman and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and included a cross-section of stakeholders representing diverse professional and ideological perspectives: former federal prosecutors and defenders; a former mayor and a veteran police leader; experts in reentry, substance use, and victim rights; and advocates and formerly incarcerated people. Beyond their own experience, members drew on the expertise of well-known authorities in the public safety and health fields and the collective wisdom of some 200 innovators and influencers who provided feedback on draft recommendations at CCJ’s Inaugural Leadership Summit in October 2019. The Task Force deliberations produced consensus on multiple areas for action by the legislative, executive, and judicial branches—from reducing violence and trauma to sentencing, the functioning of federal prisons, opportunities for release, and support for successful reentry. Reflecting the commitment of Task Force members to bipartisan, data-driven solutions, all of the 15 recommendations are accompanied by an introduction, a set of detailed implementation steps, and annotated citations summarizing the research and evidence that support them. Taken together, the Task Force proposals provide a roadmap that Congress and the Administration can follow to accelerate our progress toward a justice system that is fair and effective for all Americans.

Organizing Principles

The recommendations of the Task Force on Federal Priorities were influenced by a set of organizing principles that reflect the values of Task Force members as they seek to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

  1. Actions taken by the federal government in criminal justice policy should be based on scientifically proven strategies, programs, and practices, or should be designed to create evidence of effectiveness through the use of large-scale demonstrations or rigorously designed and evaluated interventions. All Task Force recommendations that are implemented should be evaluated for their impact on public safety and justice. Agencies should be required to translate outcomes into language and processes that are embraced and understood by practitioners working in the field, as well as the public at large.
  2. The goal of federal reentry programs and policies should be to facilitate individuals’ inclusion in society upon release, establish conditions for individuals to succeed, and contribute to the prevention of recidivism. This requires a recognition that the expertise and capacity to improve reentry results reside in multiple federal departments, including Justice, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education.
  3. The federal government should identify the reasons for disparate criminal justice outcomes that are associated with race, sex, and other federally protected categories.* When those reasons are not consistent with principles of fairness and equity, the federal government should seek to remedy them.
  4. Over the past 15 years, states have adopted myriad criminal justice reforms. Although there are meaningful differences between the state and federal criminal justice systems, including the scope and severity of the criminal activity involved, the federal government should study how states have reduced both crime and incarceration and, to the extent possible, adapt the lessons learned.
  5. At the outset of the design and development of federal criminal justice policies, federal policymakers should include the viewpoints of victims and survivors of crime, the formerly incarcerated, and others directly impacted by the criminal justice system, including service providers and people employed by the courts and the Bureau of Prisons.

* Federally protected categories include Race, Color Sex, Religion or Creed, National Origin or Ancestry, Age, Physical or Mental Disability, Veteran Status, Genetic Information, and Citizenship.

A Word on Costs and Savings

During its deliberations, the Task Force considered the potential costs of its recommendations as well as the savings they might yield. Several of the final proposals, such as those that shorten prison terms through sentencing and release measures, would save or avert costs. Others—those related to violence reduction and housing, for example—would require upfront expenditures. While the Task Force did not generate detailed fiscal impact estimates for each of the recommendations, it expects that necessary initial investments would more than pay for themselves in the medium to long term. These monetary benefits would accrue directly to public budgets through reduced costs in healthcare, housing, criminal justice, and other areas. As evidence of the cost-effectiveness of specific approaches, the report cites several analyses published by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, a leading generator of benefit-cost estimates for public programs. Beyond the impacts to government budgets, reduced victimization and incarceration decrease significant social and economic costs to victims and survivors of crime; justice-involved individuals, professionals and their families; and communities.