FIRST STEP in a jailbreak, Part Two

I’ve written before about the “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act” (FIRST STEP). Passed by the House with overwhelming support and backed by President Trump, FIRST STEP is backdoor sentence reduction legislation.

Indeed, it’s big-time sentencing reduction. Former federal prosecutor Thomas Ascik demonstrates this in an article for The Hill. He shows that most federal prisoners could serve close to 40 percent of their prison sentences in “pre-release custody” — that is, home confinement or a halfway house — instead of prison:

Eligible inmates would receive 10 days of time credits for every 30 days of “successful participation in evidence-based recidivism reduction programming or productive activities.” They could receive an additional five days of time credits every 30 days if prison staff determines they are “minimum or low risk for recidivating.”

What is an “evidence-based recidivism reduction program” that a prisoner need only “participate in” “successfully,” not complete? They are group or individual activities that include, inter alia, social learning and interpersonal skills, classes on morals or ethics, other “life skills,” family relationship-building, academic classes, art classes and substance abuse treatment.

Ascik points out that the bill introduces nothing new about those kinds of activities, which are widely available in federal prisons. They are included in the bill as purported rationales for reducing sentences.

There is no evidence that they reduce recidivism levels of the federal prison population, a hardened group, to anything approaching acceptable levels. Nor, for that matter, did the House hold open hearings on research regarding the efficacy of “evidence based recidivism reduction programs.” Apparently, calling something “evidence based” in good enough these days.

Home confinement is a joke. Authorities rely on ankle bracelets to monitor and supposedly restrict the activities of released federal and state prisoners. But an ABC News program showed how easy it is to compromise the bracelets, which routinely give off false alarms, and how monitoring officials sometimes fail to respond to alarms. ABC News documented 50 cases nationwide of murders committed by prisoners who were supposed to be confined to home with ankle bracelets.

FIRST STEP does not appropriate enough money to build new half-way houses. Because federal prisoners already are routinely sent to them before release, there won’t be enough room in existing ones to accommodate the FIRST STEP crowd. Thus, it’s clear that, as Ascik says, “the default and cheaper version of ‘pre-release custody’ will be home confinement.”

FIRST STEP also grants inmates 54 days of “good time” per year for every year sentenced, and grants it at the time the sentence is imposed. Thus, a criminal sentenced to five years immediately gets a 270-day sentence reduction. This credit for “good behavior” before there is good behavior changes current law, which awards “good time” at the end of a period of good behavior.

What would a five-year federal sentence often look like under FIRST STEP. Ascik tells us:

A prisoner is eligible for 180 days of time credits — 15 days/month, per year. Thus, at the end of the first year, he has earned 450 days, or 1.25 years, off his sentence: 180 days to home or community confinement, and 270 days of automatic “good time.” By the end of his second year, he has earned another 180 days of time credits, making the sentence 3.25 years. With more time credits allotted at the start of the third year, he will be relocated to “pre-release custody” before the end of that year.

As noted, “pre-release custody” will typically mean “home confinement.” And as ABC News demonstrated, that can mean “back on the street” and free to commit crime up to and including murder.

In an upcoming post, I’ll have more to say about the lack of evidence that “evidence based recidivism reduction programs” actually reduce recidivism in any meaningful way.