Incentives Are All Wrong in the Federal Justice System

The ever-growing federal justice system is broken. Archaic policies from the 80s and 90s encourage corruption, waste taxpayer money, ruin the lives of nonviolent criminals, and ultimately contribute to the very problems they address.

Traditionally, the federal system has only prosecuted a specific set of crimes, such as espionage, crimes against federal officials, and crimes that take place across state borders. However, the federal justice system has been growing out of control over the past few decades, with prosecutors going after less serious cases. Today, there are more than five times as many federal prosecutors as there were in 1980, and the number of federal crimes has increased by 50 percent. There are also about 30,000 criminal regulations on the books. Federal prosecutors feel an immense amount of pressure to go after people and hit stats. In fact, their paycheck depends on it.

Budgeting in the federal justice system is based on stats, particularly how many people are prosecuted. As a result, prosecutors go after easy-to-get, low-level offenders instead of real, dangerous criminals. In 2014, half of the people incarcerated in federal prisons were drug offenders.

These nonviolent offenders are then hit with hard sentences, paid for with taxpayer money. Mandatory minimum sentences stack, meaning an agent might buy from a drug dealer on three separate occasions and then combine each of those sentences to send that nonviolent offender to prison for half of his life (as happened to Weldon Angelos).

At a law enforcement policy briefing hosted by Right on Crime and Faith and Freedom Coalition this month, a panel of three former federal prosecutors recounted their own experiences in the federal justice system.

Matthew D. Orwig, former US attorney from the Eastern District of Texas, admitted that the actions he now confesses at policy briefings are the same ones he used to take pride in and boast about. Brett L. Tolman, former US attorney from Utah, understood.

Tolman explained that he used to lack perspective; he put a lot of people in prison, often times knowing they weren’t dangerous. Tolman remembered one man he sent back to prison for possession of a firearm after a nonviolent first offense. All the man actually had in his possession was one or two bullets.

“We want to get the bad guys,” he said, explaining that going after low-level drug offenders and nonviolent criminals isn’t making us safer. “The states have shown us that we can’t be driven by stats.”

The states are proving that it is possible to institute real justice reform while keeping crime down and saving taxpayers money. However, we need reform at the federal level as well. The current system at once incentivizes its own growth and the weakening of our application of justice.