Justice Credits Reforms With Spurring Inmate Releases

WASHINGTON (CN) – More than 3,100 inmates will be released from federal custody Friday as a result of sentencing changes made in the sweeping criminal-justice reform bill that became law in December.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at Department of Justice in Washington, on Nov. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The Justice Department announced the figures Friday in a statement that also touted completion of a tool able to gauge the risk of individual inmates ending up back in prison after they are released. The tool will help evaluate which inmates can earn reductions in their sentences by participating in certain prison programs. 

Friday’s announcements mark key steps in implementing the First Step Act, the sweeping criminal-justice reform bill President Donald Trump signed into law in the final days of Republican control of the House of Representatives.

“Using top-of-the-line research, people and technology, the department intends to implement this law forcefully, fully and on time, with the goal of reducing crime, enhancing public safety and strengthening the rule of law,” Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said at a press conference Friday.

More than 3,100 inmates will be released from federal custody on Friday as a result of expanded good-time credits included in the law. Associate Deputy Attorney General Antoinette Bacon told reporters Friday that the largest subset of people released from this group were in prison for drug crimes, but that those leaving federal custody represent a “broad spectrum” of the prison population.

Separately, a provision in the First Step Act that made retroactive a 2010 law that cut down the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine has reduced the sentences of 1,691 people in federal custody, the Justice Department said Friday.

In addition to the releases and the development of the risk-assessment tool, the Justice Department announced it will redirect $75 million from other areas of the budget into the implementation of the First Step Act. That money will go toward expanding a slew of prison programs, including job-and educational-training efforts.

David Safavian, deputy director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said the flow of $75 million into First Step implementation efforts was a “pleasant surprise” to reform advocates, who had grown concerned about the administration’s financial commitments to implementing the law.

“I think that’s a huge commitment to this, huge,” Safavian said in an interview Friday.

The issue of criminal-justice reform has gained increased attention in the Republican Party in recent years, culminating in the embrace of the rollback of mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes as part of its 2016 official party platform.

The First Step Act passed Congress after a more robust, but still largely bipartisan, bill died in the Senate at the end of the Obama administration.

The First Step Act marked the first major federal criminal-justice reform effort in years, but Republicans and conservative advocates had expressed concerns after it passed about the administration’s ability, and possibly its willingness, to implement some of the law’s provisions.

One key provision was the risk-assessment tool, which the Justice Department was required under the First Step Act to complete by Saturday. The tool will look at each person in the federal prison system and predict the chance that they will end up back in prison after being released, taking into account factors such as their age, the crime they committed and any programs they participated in during their time behind bars.

The tool will place each inmate into one of four categories ranging from minimum to high, with people in the lowest two risk levels eligible to earn early release by participating in recidivism-reduction programs. Every inmate in the federal system will have their risk level reassessed every six months, so those deemed higher risks will be able to drop into lower categories by participating in the programs.

Safavian said he has not yet seen the specifics of the tool, but is encouraged by the apparent focus on factors that can change over a person’s time in prison because that would reward people who choose to participate in programs that can help them transition back into their communities.

“Everybody is capable of redemption,” Safavian said. “Every single person is capable of redemption.”

Attorney General William Barr echoed this optimism.

“Our communities are safer when we do a better job of rehabilitating offenders in our custody and preparing them for a successful transition to life after incarceration,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement Friday. “The department is committed to and has been working towards full implementation of the First Step Act, which will help us effectively deploy resources to help reduce risk, recidivism and crime.”

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