WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department is underutilizing programs meant to keep low-level criminal offenders out of prison and is spending millions of dollars to lock up people who might be suitable candidates for leniency, a watchdog report found Thursday.
The audit from the department's inspector general examines federal diversion programs that offer alternatives to prison for certain suspects accused of nonviolent and low-level crimes.
Then-Attorney General Eric Holder called for wider use of diversion programs as part of a 2013 initiative, known as "Smart on Crime," intended to reduce the federal prison population and reshape the criminal justice system. Advocates also have trumpeted such programs as a fairer and more cost-effective way to deal with nonviolent drug users and offenders who aren't thought to pose a public safety threat.
But the inspector general's office found that the Justice Department is making uneven use of pretrial diversion programs and similar programs run by the federal courts.
Nearly half of the 94 federal judicial districts had just five or fewer successful pretrial diversion participants between fiscal years 2012 and 2014, the report said. Under that program, certain low-level offenders are steered away from the court system and can have charges against them dismissed by prosecutors if they successfully complete a period of supervision.
The vast majority of judicial districts — 78— do not offer court-based diversion programs like drug courts, which offer treatment in place of prison, the inspector general said.
The inspector general's office said it identified 7,106 offenders over a three-year period who could have been suitable candidates for pretrial diversion. But of those, only 1,520 were found to have successfully completed a pretrial diversion program. The department spent millions of dollars to imprison offenders who might be suitable for pretrial diversion, the audit found.
"By diverting those offenders from traditional court proceedings, the department could have potentially saved millions of tax dollars in prison costs," Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a videotaped statement accompanying the audit.
The inspector general tried to establish how many offenders had been placed in diversionary programs, but the Justice Department does not track those numbers and has "few, if any, accurate metrics to properly evaluate whether these diversion programs are effective in reducing prosecution and incarceration costs, or reducing recidivism," Horowitz said.
In a response to the report, the Justice Department said it agreed that more could be done to evaluate the effectiveness of diversion programs, but it said that the number of such programs had increased dramatically in the last few years.
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