Federal Prison Population Expected to Grow Under Trump

By Beth Reinhard Features Dow Jones Newswires

The federal prison population is expected to grow next year by 4,171 to a total of 191,493 as the Trump administration steps up prosecutions of illegal immigrants and drug offenders, reversing the trend toward a smaller prison population under former President Barack Obama.

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That estimate of 2% growth in fiscal 2018 was tucked into in a Justice Department budget proposal posted online after the Trump administration's broader spending plan was released two weeks ago. The proposed budget also calls for 300 new federal prosecutors and 75 new immigration judges.

The budget doesn't detail the costs of the prison growth, but it is expected to be a boon to private prison companies, which are stepping up lobbying efforts to win contracts to house thousands of new inmates and immigrant detainees.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned a decision by the Obama administration to phase out contracts with for-profit prison operators after the Justice Department's inspector general concluded private prisons were more dangerous than government-run facilities. Private prison companies disputed those findings, and federal officials say they have improved oversight of contract facilities.

About 19% of federal inmates are in private prisons or re-entry centers, a proportion industry analysts say will increase because contractors have more beds available than federal facilities. Government-run prisons are running 14% above their official capacity, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

"This is an opportunity for private prisons, absolutely," said Michael Kodesch, an analyst with Canaccord Genuity, a financial-services firm.

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The anticipated increase in the federal-prison population contrasts with a growing bipartisan movement to reduce the number of people behind bars. After decades of tough-on-crime laws led to crowded and costly prisons, many states are reconsidering the long, mandatory-minimum sentences that critics say disproportionately affect minorities and fail to improve public safety.

In Louisiana, which imprisons more residents per capita than any other state and also has the highest murder rate, the Republican-led Legislature this week approved a sweeping criminal-justice overhaul that will reduce sentences for a range of crimes and expand parole, probation and other alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders.

Mr. Sessions argues that long sentences helped cut crime and that Mr. Obama's policies are in part responsible for the recent increase in violent crime in some cities.

Last month, Mr. Sessions scuttled an Obama administration policy to avoid mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, ordering federal prosecutors to charge "the most serious readily provable offense."

Some of his former Senate colleagues are pushing back. "The department's new policy ignored the growing bipartisan view that federal sentencing laws are in grave need of reform," said a letter to Mr. Sessions this week from Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois and Cory Booker of New Jersey. "In many cases, the new policy will result in counterproductive sentences that do nothing to make the public safer."

Mr. Obama was the first president in decades to leave office with a smaller prison population than when he arrived. Thousands of prisoners were released following a 2014 decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent policy-making body, to reduce most drug-related sentences and apply the changes retroactively.

Mr. Obama also granted clemency to 1,927 individuals, more than any other president since Harry Truman.

Those trends have been widely expected to reverse under President Donald Trump, who vowed to crack down on illegal immigration and drug trafficking during his campaign. Share prices for the two biggest private prison companies. Geo Group Inc. and CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corp. of America, have roughly doubled since the election.

In February, Geo Group added another lobbyist to its team of a half-dozen firms: Brian Ballard, a top fundraiser for the Trump campaign in Florida. Geo Group spent $390,000 on federal lobbying in the first three months of this year, nearly half of what it spent all of last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In April, Geo Group landed a contract from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to build and run a $110 million, 1,000-bed detention facility in Texas.

"We look forward to working with both the new administration and the new Congress in continuing our long-standing partnership with the federal government," said Pablo Paez, a spokesman for Geo Group.

CoreCivic spent $220,000 on federal lobbying in the first three months of this year, compared with $1.1 million for all of last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Write to Beth Reinhard at beth.reinhard@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 08, 2017 16:43 ET (20:43 GMT)