Public Defender Service Sues Federal Prisons for Scoring System

February 11, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Public Defender Service Sues Federal Prisons for Scoring System
(Photo by Pawel Czerwinski via Unsplash)

WASHINGTON – The District of Columbia’s Public Defender Service is suing the Federal Bureau of Prisons in a class action lawsuit that could alter how prisoners are handled nationwide.

The Public Defender Service argues District of Columbia prisoners are being treated too harshly because of the Bureau of Prisons’ classification system.

Washington, D.C., does not have its own prison, which means its criminal defendants convicted of felonies are transferred to federal prisons.

The lawsuit filed this month in U.S. District Court argues the Bureau of Prisons’ scoring system for determining the level of incarceration is unfair. It “systematically” results in scores that are too high for District of Columbia residents, leading to higher-security imprisonment and reduced chance for early release.


The same scoring system is used on prisoners transferred from states and military tribunals nationwide. It is not used for prisoners convicted of federal crimes.

The system subjects the inmates to greater risk of violent assault, more restrictive living conditions and fewer programming opportunities, the lawsuit says.

Although prior offenses are counted for District of Columbia, state and military prisoners in the scoring system, they “are not counted for individuals sentenced by federal courts,” the Public Defender Service said in a statement.


The lawsuit asks the court to order a revision of the scoring system that would exclude prior petty and juvenile offenses.

“Twelve percent of [Bureau of Prisons] residents overall are incarcerated in high security institutions, whereas 39% of ‘D.C. Code offenders’ are housed in those institutions,” the lawsuit says.

States that transfer inmates to federal prisons say they have few alternatives with such a large population of incarcerated persons and limited resources to detain them.

Among the roughly 2.4 million Americans who face some degree of incarceration, 237,000 are in state prisons and 95,000 in federal prisons, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Others are housed in county or city jails or are granted limited home confinement.

The United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate of any country in the world.

For the District of Columbia, where the lawsuit is filed, there were more than 2,700 residents housed in 120 federal prisons last year, according to the Corrections Information Council.


The Bureau of Prisons has declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Tom can be reached at [email protected]

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