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Justice Department plans big prisoner release

Thousands of inmates qualify for community supervision

Prisoners populate a yard at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Neb., on June 25, 2020. Associate Press/Photo by Nati Harnik, file

Justice Department plans big prisoner release

Thousands of federal prisoners may get out early thanks to a new rule designed to accelerate the rehabilitation of criminals. The rule took effect in January after delays by the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Prisons that kept about 60,000 qualified inmates from receiving time credits toward pre-release custody or supervised release, according to a Justice Department inspector general report. The change gives more low-risk prisoners a shot at starting new lives sooner, but policy experts and prison ministries warn that a lack of reentry programs leaves inmates gravely unprepared for life outside prison walls.

The rule builds on the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal reform measure passed in 2018 and signed by President Donald Trump. The act encourages inmates to complete programs that lower their risk of reoffending. It also reduced the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Under the law, federal inmates who pass a risk assessment can earn time credits toward early release to home confinement, community supervision, or time in a halfway house by participating in approved programs such as academic and social skills classes, jobs training, and addiction recovery, among others. For every 30 days they participate, prisoners earn 10 to 15 days of credit.

The First Step Act ordered the Department of Justice to create an inmate risk assessment, the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs (PATTERN). Sixty-eight offenses, including murder and the sexual exploitation of children, disqualify inmates from earning time credits under the act.

There are more than 150,000 inmates in federal prisons. The Department of Justice released about 3,100 inmates immediately after the act’s passage, but thousands more never received the time credits they had earned. While prison staffing shortages and the coronavirus pandemic led to delays, former U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman said the Department of Justice has been “dragging its feet.” Tolman worked with the Trump administration on the First Step Act to get conservative lawmakers on board. He accused the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) of using the pandemic as a “convenient scapegoat” for not reassessing prisoners according to the act’s new standards.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., agreed, saying, “We should recognize that BOP was slow to implement this legislation long before the first inmate tested positive for COVID.” Other Democratic and Republican lawmakers urged the Biden administration to implement more of the act and get rid of unreasonable regulations that limited the legislation’s effect on prisoners.

The latest changes by the prisons bureau redefine how prisoners earn days in pre-release custody or supervised release. Previously, a “day” in a nonrecidivism program had to comprise a full eight hours. But most prison programs don’t meet a full eight hours, so an inmate would have to attend a two-hour class four times to earn a “day.” Now a prisoner can receive 10 days of credit for participating in a program for 30 days even if the program does not meet for a full eight hours. Inmates also now have more program options. The rule expanded what qualifies as recidivism reduction to include residential drug abuse programs, online and correspondence college courses, and some religious services.

Inmates can earn time credits retroactively back to Dec. 21, 2018 — the day Trump signed the First Step Act. The BOP will first release prisoners who have more time credits than days left on their sentence, are less than 12 months from release, and have a supervised release term. The Department of Justice said the BOP will release many more prisoners in the coming months as it calculates time credits for other eligible inmates. While it isn’t clear how many prisoners will be affected, the department has estimated the number in the thousands.

Thaddeus Johnson, a former law enforcement official who now works as an assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia State University, called the First Step Act a move in the right direction, but just that — “a first step.” He pointed out the importance of the type of communities and programs to which prisoners are returning.

After months or years of making few decisions for themselves, former inmates are on their own. The First Step Act reauthorized the 2007 Second Chance Act, providing $100 million per year to state and local reentry programs, but prisoners are often still left floundering. Dale Brown, executive director of Texas Reach Out, a Christian ministry in Austin, Texas, warned that the new rule releases more inmates into society with no systematic reentry process. Former inmates face a typically unwelcoming job market and a complicated government bureaucracy. Texas Reach Out picks prisoners up at the bus station, takes them to get an ID, and helps them get food stamps and find a job.

Without reentry support, former inmate Justin Turner said he never would have gotten back on his feet after his alcoholism led to divorce and incarceration. He earned his third DUI conviction and a year behind bars after he drove drunk at 60 miles per hour and spun his car off the road and into a pecan tree. He woke up in a helicopter as it flew him to a hospital. When he was released from prison, Texas Reach Out spent the entire next day taking Turner to get food stamps and medical insurance. Now he is a house manager, works for an e-commerce company, and is starting a business.

Too many others lack this kind of community and accountability, Brown said: “The odds are stacked against them.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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