A bipartisan task force created by Congress issued "an urgent call to action" Tuesday to overhaul the nation's federal prisons and reduce the number of U.S. inmates by 60,000 over the next decade.
A new report from the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections found that punitive mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes represent "the primary driver" of prison overcrowding. The report recommends they be reserved for the most violent offenders.
The report said almost 80 percent of inmates convicted of drug crimes had no prior criminal history. And it urged Congress to create a path for prisoners who have served more than 15 years to apply for shorter sentences by giving judges a "second look" at their cases.
"The federal government, the Congress and the Bureau of Prisons need to take a hard look at how sentencing and prisons really operate in this country," task force member Laurie Robinson told NPR in an interview. "We think the federal criminal justice system suffers from a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing and rehabilitation, and that doesn't really serve the interests of public safety."
The report also urges more oversight and resources for the Federal Bureau of Prisons — and for programs that return inmates to their communities and foster bonds with their families.
"We certainly can't continue to do what we're doing now," said another task force member and former public defender, Cynthia Roseberry. "We need to ensure that once a person serves their sentence, we stamp that ticket paid in full, and part of that means preparing them for re-entry."
The task force consists of former lawmakers, corrections officials, academics and other people who've long interacted with the justice system. Despite the wide variety in background and political outlook, three people on the task force told NPR the group easily reached consensus.
Recommendations in the report go far beyond legislative proposals to overhaul the corrections system in the House and the Senate. It's not clear whether the bills will pass before the presidential election intensifies this year.
That doesn't bother Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who's been raising concerns about efforts to be more lenient on drug criminals.
"These defendants are for the most part very serious offenders," said Sessions, a former U.S. attorney. "Federal prosecutors ... they don't focus on petty crimes and small cases."
Sessions said the administration and lawmakers need to be careful not to "retreat" from criminal justice policies that helped bring crime to near-record lows. He pointed out a recent case in Ohio, where a man who had benefited from changes to the federal sentencing guidelines has been charged with killing his ex-girlfriend and two of her children earlier this month.
Advocates who want to see changes to the justice system acknowledge that some offenders will commit new crimes if they're released. But they say research gives prison officials more and better tools to identify inmates who pose the most danger. And they say the system locks up too many people for too long, producing overcrowded prisons where administrators don't have the resources to offer drug treatment, education and family interactions.
The task force is named after Colson, who served time in prison for Watergate-era misdeeds and later went on to found an advocacy group for inmates called the Prison Fellowship.
Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for policy and advocacy, said a central principle of the organization is that after people pay their debt to society, "they are capable of being transformed and making significant contributions in their communities."
Members of the task force said they visited a federal prison in Atlanta, where they met groups of elderly or ill inmates, some of whom had applied for compassionate release. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz has found the program is little-used, in part due to resistance from prosecutors and a nettlesome bureaucracy.
Robinson said she heard from those inmates who could barely talk about their "lack of hope."
"Certainly this is an area where more requests could be granted without risk to public safety," she said.