Thousands Freed From Prison Custody As DOJ Implements Sentencing Reform Law

Jul 19, 2019
Originally published on July 19, 2019 3:48 pm

Updated at 4:11 p.m. ET

More than 3,100 people will leave Bureau of Prisons custody starting Friday, part of what Justice Department officials call "a truly monumental effort" to comply with the First Step Act, a criminal justice law passed by Congress last year.

Most of the offenders being freed have been convicted of drug-related crimes and have been living in halfway houses across the United States in preparation for their release, acting BOP chief Hugh Hurwitz told reporters at a news conference in Washington.

About 900 of the inmates are subject to detention by local authorities or immigration officials, and their fate will be up to states or the Department of Homeland Security, he said.

The Justice Department announced that 250 more inmates who are elderly or terminally ill have transitioned into home confinement or compassionate-release programs since President Trump signed the law last December.

Those programs existed in some form before the First Step Act, but advocates for prisoners and their families said they were used only sparingly and now are somewhat easier to access.

"The department intends to implement this law fully and on time, with the goal of reducing crime, enhancing public safety and strengthening the rule of law," said Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen.

Authorities also unveiled a new risk assessment tool designed to identify prisoners who could benefit from prison programming that would allow them to win credits that count toward early release under the law.

Inmates will be reassessed every six months under that new program.

In a joint statement, Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said they would "vigilantly" review the new risk assessment system.

"It's critical that the assessment does not disproportionately designate minorities as having a higher risk of reoffending," the senators said.

Questions about implementation

The Justice Department enlisted a think tank, the Hudson Institute, to assist with the assessment effort. But that decision has come under fire from key Democrats in Congress.

"The Hudson Institute and its leadership have opposed sentencing reform, opposed the First Step Act's reforms, and authored an article entitled 'Why Trump Should Oppose Criminal Justice Reform,' " as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and subcommittee chairwoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., said earlier this year.

"We are concerned that the selection of a biased organization lacking requisite expertise may reflect a lack of intent to diligently and effectively implement the bipartisan criminal justice reforms," they said.

Advocates seeking to overhaul the federal system welcomed news Friday that the Justice Department is moving ahead to implement the First Step Act. But they said they have ongoing concerns about funding and oversight, and they want Congress to hold the administration accountable.

Attorney General William Barr has been the subject of criticism that he holds outdated views about crime and punishment from the earlier era when he served as attorney general.

"There's a lot of skepticism over whether this Justice Department is going to fully implement the law," said Inimai Chettiar, legislative and policy director for the Justice Action Network.

"We definitely believe that Congress needs to step in and ensure that this is happening and to also fully fund the law because the only way that these recidivism reduction programs are going to be effective is if they are fully funded."

Still, groups that work with inmates and their families said that whatever its failings, the First Step Act is making a difference.

"Every day of freedom is important," said Kevin Ring, president of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "We're happy for the families who get to welcome home their loved ones a few weeks or months early."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than 3,000 federal prisoners are headed home today. They've won early release because of criminal justice law called the First Step Act. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The deputy attorney general says meeting deadlines set by the First Step Act seven months ago took a monumental effort, and Jeffrey Rosen says it's not over yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFFREY ROSEN: 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.

JOHNSON: Most of the 3,100 inmates getting out this week committed drug crimes, before racking up good behavior credits that helped pave the way for their release. Toni Bacon works on the issue at the Justice Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONI BACON: In terms of the range of people who have been released in - the largest number are drug offenders, the second group are weapons and explosives, and the third are sex offenders. But there's a very wide range of people who are being released.

JOHNSON: They've been living in halfway houses, getting ready to go home. But about 900 of them will now be subject to immigration detention. Hugh Hurwitz is acting director at the Bureau of Prisons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUGH HURWITZ: I can't tell you where they'll go because that's up to states or Homeland Security.

JOHNSON: Another 250 inmates who are very old or very sick have been moved into home confinement or compassionate release. Prison officials often stonewalled those requests before the First Step Act made the process a bit easier. Advocates for overhauling the justice system welcome those changes, but they say Congress should weigh in to make sure the Justice Department is living up to its promises. Inimai Chettiar is policy director at the Justice Action Network.

INIMAI CHETTIAR: There's a lot of skepticism around whether this Justice Department is going to fully implement the law, and so we definitely believe that Congress needs to step in and ensure that this is happening and to also fully fund the law.

JOHNSON: After protests from advocates, DOJ says it has moved $75 million from other prison programs to help fund the First Step Act this year. Chettiar says that leaves a big question for 2020 and beyond.

CHETTIAR: The only way that these recidivism reduction programs are going to be effective is if they are fully funded.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.