Saturday, July 9, 2016

Six Recommendations By The Charles Colson Task Force That Could Save US Billions

In 2014, Congress created the Charles Colson Task Force to spend a year and a million dollars reviewing the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the largest prison system in the country. Most of what is recommended here for federal prisons would apply equally to any state's Department of Corrections.

On Jan. 26, 2016, the Task Force released the following six recommendations, approved unanimously by its nine members selected by both Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress. The following is a summary of their 132 page report:

Recommendation 1: Reserve prison for those convicted of the most serious federal crimes.
Congress should repeal all mandatory minimums for drug offenses except for kingpins. Only 16% of people in state prisons have been convicted of a drug crime, but 50% in the BOP.

"Moreover, most people in federal prison for sex crimes were convicted of possessing, trading, selling, or producing child pornography versus sexual assault... Significant shares of those convicted of federal sex crimes are subject to lengthy sentences with few opportunities for reductions post-conviction."

In addition, there should be a review of all the other 200 mandatory minimums in the federal code. For example, judges should be allowed to sentence below the mandatory minimum for certain weapon offenses associated with nonviolent crimes.

While drug offenses were by far the biggest cause for the eight times increase in the BOP from 25,000 people in 1980 to almost 200,000 today, weapon possession crimes came in a distant second.

Finally, any prohibition on probation should be eliminated. 

Thus, each of the 94 federal judicial districts should establish front-end diversionary programs e.g. drug and veterans courts. Prosecutors should be encouraged to expand pretrial diversion.

Recommendation 2: Promote a Culture of Safety and of Rehabilitation in Federal Facilities
The BOP is presently 20% above its rated capacity. One of the immediate ways to help to reduce this 20% is to amend the good time credit so that 54 days, not just 47, are given for each year.

Another safety recommendation is to have appropriate staffing levels as well as not having more individuals sharing cells designed for fewer residents. Also, there must be adequate and beneficial in-prison programming and services based on individual risk.

The BOP's current assessment tool of static risk factors should be expanded to include treatment needs as well as program shortages.

For example, two of the most effective, but have waiting lists, are the Residential Drug Abuse Program and prison industries. Making RDAP and its one-year sentence reduction available to all prisoners as well as using research suggesting a working wage would enhance their effectiveness. Other programs doing better but still needing funding are mental health, drug abuse, education, and treatment for persons convicted of sex offenses. Finally, the 5% or almost 10,000 of the BOP held in some form of segregated housing should be greatly reduced. Studies show that staff can promote behavioral change with positive relationships with those who are in segregated housing.

And last, but certainly not least, is that the BOP should house individuals as close to home as possible. One strategy is to contract with state facilities when no federal facility is near.

Furthermore, the BOP should establish a central family affairs and visitation office to enhance the bonds between families especially between incarcerated loved ones and their children.

Recommendation 3: Incentivize Participation in Risk-Reduction Programming
"If the incarcerated exist in a state of perpetual idleness, prison can become a reliable incubator for future crime."
Thus, the Task Force recommends that Congress (1) authorize individuals not serving life sentences to earn up to 20% of time served by complying with his or her individualized case plan.

Examples of this plan would include skill-building, ongoing education, vocational training and faith-based programming. For lifers who legally cannot get the 20%, there would be rewards such as additional recreation, increased visiting and phone use and access to specialty commissary items. (2) Establish a Second Look provision that would permit anyone who has been "in" for 15 years to apply for re-sentencing. A judge in each 94 fed districts would hear these petitions. If okayed, there would be a full judicial review.

Also, "Judges would not be required to adhere to existing mandatory minimum sentences" but could consider other factors such as change in prison, whether release would pose too great a risk to public safety and how societal norms have changed concerning the underlying offense. If turned down, they could try again in five years. In addition, victims could provide written testimony but the sentence cannot be made more severe.

Finally, the judicial panel "may choose to terminate the prison term at review, shorten the prison term to an earlier future release date, add a period of community supervision, or attach certain conditions of supervision."

In 2014, less than 4% of the BOP had served 15 years or more. The abolition of parole removed any mechanism by which these long sentences could be reconsidered. Besides the Second Look, the Task Force recommends that the clemency initiative of President Obama remains in place for future Presidents and that this process continue to be improved.

Recommendation 4: Ensure Successful Reintegration by Using Evidence Based Practices in Supervision and Support
BOP released 40,000 in 2014. Most spent the final portion in "pre-release custody" which: (1) is provided by US Probation (2) cannot exceed one year and may involve a halfway house called Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs), home confinement, or a combination of both. Home confinement is limited to six months or 10% of the prison term, whichever is less.

The Task Force states that there must be a much better "transition of individuals transferring from BOP to community agencies to ensure a safe and seamless reintegration."

At the same time, supervised release should be strengthened and the use of early termination should be greatly expanded. In fact, for successful individuals, federal judges have the authority to terminate a supervised release term after a year.

Recommendation 5: Enhance System Performance and Accountability through Better Coordination across Agencies and Increased Transparency
The Task Force recommends the following actions: (1) establish a joint Dept. of Justice/Judiciary working group to oversee the implementation of these reforms. Specifically, make sure that federal probation is anchored in evidence-based practice which are consistent with best practice and that conditions of supervision-including any potential supervision fees-support rather undermine reentry. (2) expand and disseminate public info about fed corrections. (3) set up an Office if Victim Services in the BOP. (4) expand the perspective of the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) by including formerly incarcerated individuals and victims as well as defense attorneys. (5) establish a permanent BOP Performance, Accountability and Oversight Board to ensure BOP carries out these reforms while maintaining high standards of correctional practice and (6) review fed collateral consequences that have no public safety basis and develop recommendations to Congress starting with allowing Pell Grants in the BOP and eliminating criminal history disclosures for fed employees.

Recommendation 6: Reinvest Savings to Support the Expansion of Necessary Programs, Supervision and Treatment
Congress should immediately provide funds to the DOJ and the Judiciary for the following: (1) a validated risk and needs assessment tool for the BOP (2) increased staffing, programs and services to U.S. Probation (3) U.S. courts to establish the Second Look (4) the USCC to expand capacity and training and (5) grants for front-end diversion programs.

In addition, the Joint Working Group should develop recommendations for reinvesting savings from the reduced BOP population, including continued funding for the above and support for other Task Force recommendations.

The Task Force estimates that if these six recommendations were implemented as a whole, the BOP population would be reduced by more than 60,000 by FY 2024 with a savings of $5 billion. "Rather than closing BOP facilities, the BOP will first transfer individuals out of privately operated facilities" which now house 11% of the BOP's population.

Therefore, "Under the justice reinvestment model, the savings resulting from implementing these recommendations will be reinvested in other programs that can improve accountability, reduce recidivism and increase public safety."

The above material was forwarded to me by an reform-minded inmate in one of our Virginia prisons. The full 132 page report, TRANSFORMING PRISONS, RESTORING LIVES can be found on the website.

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