In May, the Trump administration issued a document called “Major Savings and Reforms BUDGET OF THE U. S. GOVERNMENT Fiscal Year 2018.” In this document, the administration claimed that it cut $888 million from the BOP’s budget by cancelling the construction of the proposed Letcher County, KY prison facility. The same math was used in the official proposed DOJ/BOP prison construction budget, and the FY2018 Budget at a Glance.
Media outlets universally took that number to be true. The Washington Post reported that the proposed budget “[c]uts almost $1 billion of funding for federal prison construction.” The Correctional News said that the budget included a “$1 billion cut in federal prison construction spending.”
Not so much. The line item pictured at the top of this post from “Major Savings and Reforms” led NCIA to look into where these $888 million dollars were coming from. There is only one prison construction project being cancelled- the $444 million appropriated in FY2016 for the Letcher, KY facility. How did this become $888 million? Simply put- the administration double counted almost half a billion dollars.
See this calculation from the Budget at a Glance (highlighting added):
That’s one way to make your budget look better. So how much did the total proposed BOP budget actually cut from FY2017? The answer can’t be found in any of the administration’s public documents- because they’re using the wrong numbers for FY2017 to begin with. According to the Congressional Research Service report “FY2017 Appropriations for the Department of Justice” written by CRS analyst Nathan James, the actual amount appropriated for the BOP in FY2017 was $7,141,500,000 (not $7,464,283,000, as claimed by the administration). Without the double counted $444 million, the total FY2018 BOP budget request is $7,198,248,000.
Bottom line- the proposed FY2018 BOP budget in reality requested an increase in spending of $56.7 million over FY2017.
It may turn out that the $444 million Letcher prison might still get built, as Congress would need to specifically cancel the 2016 appropriation to permanently kill it (and neither the current House or Senate appropriations bills do this). Or, the BOP might simply refuse to build the prison even though the funds are appropriated- nothing in the appropriation mandates the BOP spend the money. It was merely made available if the BOP chooses to spend it- “uncommitted funds” in budget parlance. Arguably, the BOP should get credit for not spending the $444 million appropriated in 2016, but that decision was first made under the Obama administration, which never requested the prison be built in the first place.
So what did the Trump administration actually propose cutting? Jobs- lots of jobs. Nearly 7,000 correctional officers and other employees would lose their jobs if the BOP has its way.
Why does this budget foolery matter? For one thing, the BOP is now claiming that they have to cut spending on Residential Reentry Centers and critical reentry services for inmates “due to our fiscal environment.” This simply isn’t true. Furthermore, the proposed massive staffing cuts come at a time when prisons are already understaffed, resulting in fewer staff resources being available for prisoner rehabilitation programs and a degradation of the safety of inmates. At the very least, the Trump administration, the Department of Justice, and the Bureau of Prisons should be honest about where taxpayer dollars are going. NCIA will continue to look into these vital issues.