from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2015, Issue No. 45
June 30, 2015

Secrecy News Blog:


"The number of people incarcerated in the United States has increased dramatically over the past three decades," a new report from the Congressional Research Service observes, from around 419,000 inmates in 1983 to about 1.5 million inmates in 2013.

"The incarceration rate increased from 179 per 100,000 people in 1983 to 478 per 100,000 in 2013," generating mounting concerns about the economic, social and other consequences of the criminal justice system.

At this point, CRS says, "incarceration has probably reached the point of diminishing returns."

The new CRS report looks at approaches to reducing the imprisoned population. "Because courts and correctional officials make decisions about who can safely be diverted from incarceration or granted early release, they may benefit from tools that can help in this process. Actuarial risk assessment tools may serve this purpose. Needs assessments could also help correctional officials make determinations about which offenders need higher levels of supervision and/or rehabilitative programming."

A copy of the report was obtained by Secrecy News. See Risk and Needs Assessment in the Criminal Justice System, June 22, 2015.

Other new reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Procedures for Congressional Action in Relation to a Nuclear Agreement with Iran: In Brief, June 23, 2015:

Greenhouse Gas Pledges by Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, June 29, 2015:

U.S. Capital Markets and International Accounting Standards: GAAP Versus IFRS, June 25, 2015:

Sex Trafficking: An Overview of Federal Criminal Law, June 25, 2015:

Appointment and Confirmation of Executive Branch Leadership: An Overview, June 22, 2015:

Judiciary Appropriations FY2016, June 18, 2015:

Last year, CRS introduced a new product line called CRS Insights, which offers short takes on topics of current news or policy interest, typically with links to more substantive analyses by CRS and others. CRS Insights are provided to Congress "in response to client feedback asking for shorter, more succinct products that are published quickly in response to fast-moving public policy issues."

Some of the latest examples include the following.

Economic Crisis in Greece, CRS Insights, June 29, 2015

Hong Kong's Legislative Council Votes Down Chief Executive Election Reform, CRS Insights, June 22, 2015

Vietnam's Communist Party Chief to Make Historic First Visit to Washington, CRS Insights, June 19, 2015

Protecting Civil Aviation from Cyberattacks, CRS Insights, June 18, 2015

South Carolina Church Shooting and Hate Crime in the United States, CRS Insights, June 18, 2015

France: Efforts to Counter Islamist Terrorism and Radicalization, CRS Insights, June 29, 2015

Sifting Domestic Terrorism from Other Illegal Activity, CRS Insights, June 24, 2015


Last year, the Congressional Research Service produced more than 1,000 new reports and more than 2,500 updates of previous reports for the use of Congress, according to the latest CRS annual report. Those figures do not include "approximately 62,000 requests for custom analysis and research" for individual members or Committees.

"For all public policy issues, Congress could rely on the authoritative, objective, timely, and confidential support that CRS offered at each stage of the legislative process," the CRS annual report said.

In principle, CRS should be able to release all of its general distribution reports to the public, while maintaining the confidentiality of analyses prepared for individual members at their request. This common-sense distinction is observed, for example, by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), CRS's sister organization, which releases many reports but withholds others.

"CBO makes its work widely available to the Congress and the public by releasing publicly all of its formal cost estimates and analytic reports," CBO Director Keith Hall said in testimony earlier this month.

"In some circumstances, though, the needs of the Congress lead CBO to keep the results of an analysis confidential," he said. "Such analyses include informal cost estimates and other types of information produced to assist in the development of legislation."

But some warn that a similarly straightforward, non-neurotic approach to public release of CRS reports could have unintended negative consequences.

"Most reports are readily available through FAS, but that does not mean that the seemingly minor step of making them publicly available from the get-go won't change the culture at CRS and how Congress uses CRS," wrote Winslow Wheeler, a former GAO analyst who later worked with the Project on Government Oversight (which actually favors public distribution of CRS reports).

"Some (many) in Congress will be more encouraged to misuse CRS reports just as they now do GAO reports by manipulating the research question to manipulate the content of the report. That practice is rife at GAO, but not now at CRS," according to Mr. Wheeler, whose remarks were circulated in an online discussion list in response to a recent New York Times editorial.

"Officially writing for public consumption can also mean that the sometimes technical nature of CRS work will likely be dumbed-down for public consumption.... It could also mean thickening the bureaucracy at CRS if managers there get the notion they are writing for the public, not directly for staff in Congress."

"The quality of CRS reports, like at GAO, is extremely uneven. Some are excellent; a few are far from it. [Writing for public release] will not likely result in more, better reports," he contended.

As long as most CRS reports are publicly accessible through alternate, unofficial channels, this question can safely remain open.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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