An already overcrowded federal prison system will overflow, some congressmen and criminal justice experts predict, if proposed new federal sentencing guidelines are accepted by Congress. The guidelines, to be sent to Capitol Hill April 13 by the United States Sentencing Commission, will become effective in six months unless Congress passes special legislation to the contrary.
Although met by heavy criticism when public comment was invited last month, the guidelines will go to Congress after less than a month and with no indication that any revisions are being made.
The proposed rules would eliminate parole, minimize probation, and provide for longer prison sentences in lieu of parole. The idea behind the change is to let potential offenders know that the punishment will, indeed, fit the crime and that sentences for similar offenses will be consistent throughout the federal court system.
But, say critics, the prison system cannot stand the additional inmate population pressures that would result.
James Beck, a researcher for the US Parole Commission, says the situation is like a ``bathtub filling up with water with no water going out. It's got to overflow.''
The system is 50 percent over normal capacity now, he points out.
House Judiciary Committee member Joseph Early (D) of Massachusetts says his colleagues in Congress purposely did not require a statement on the impact of the guidelines on the prison system, knowing that more prisons would be needed.
``The experts suggests an increase [in the number of federal prison inmates] to 68,000 by 1990,'' Congressman Early says. ``That's a 26,000 increase - 46 new prisons.''
Mr. Beck says that when Congress fashioned the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and established the Sentencing Commission to form guidelines, it provided for the new policies to become law without specific action by Congress to minimize debate. Beck says that the possibility that both the House and Senate would pass a law nullifying the guidelines is ``slim.''
Anthony P. Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association, says: ``They're creating a welfare system by taking men's responsibility away from them. We give them a bed and three squares, and their women and children go on welfare.
``The state says, `Welcome, we're going to take care of you for the next three or four years.' It costs $16,000 a year to keep a man in prison.''
Federal, state, and local governments spent $45.6 billion in fiscal year 1985 for civil and criminal justice, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This is a 75 percent increase since 1979. Over a fourth of that sum, $13 billion, was spent for corrections, including the building of jails and prisons and administering probation and parole systems.
The director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Norman F. Carlson, says the inmate population has jumped 75 percent since 1980. ``I understand that preliminary results indicate that imposition of sentencing guidelines outlined in the draft would substantially expand the population through increased time served as well as more offenders being committed to prison.
``While I do not question the sentence lengths proposed in the draft guidelines, I am concerned with our ability to respond.''
US Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William H. Wilkins Jr., chairman of the Sentencing Commission, says the guidelines will cause ``some increase [in the prison population] but not significant - nothing like 50 percent.'' He says the prison population would increase ``with or without [the new] guidelines.'' But one commission member, Rutgers University law Prof. Paul H. Robinson, says, ``I don't have the slightest idea what impact the guidelines will have on prison population, because there has been no [commission] study done on it.'' But he adds that the number of federal inmates ``is going to go up, we just don't know how much.''
Mr. Travisono says, ``Prison space should be reserved for the heinous, violent predator. Other people should be dealt with some other way.''