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Good Criminal Justice News in Washington, But There’s More to Do

With a new administration soon to be in the White House, it is unclear what the next four years hold for federal criminal justice reform efforts. Despite this, two notable measures moved forward in Washington last week.

  • Grainne Dunne
December 6, 2016

With a new administration soon to be in the White House, it is unclear what the next four years hold for federal criminal justice reform efforts. Despite this, two notable measures moved forward in Washington last week.

First, the Department of Justice announced the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) would undertake sweeping reforms to reduce recidivism rates and strengthen public safety. They include:

  • Expanding educational programming within correctional facilities. The BOP plans to increase educational opportunities for federal prisoners by building a school district within the system to offer programs for adult literacy/basic skills, high school diplomas, post-secondary education, and expanded opportunities for individuals with learning disabilities. According to the Justice Department, research shows that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison, and every dollar spent on prison education saves $4 to $5 on the costs of re-incarceration.
  • Overhauling residential reentry centers. Also known as “halfway houses,” these facilities, which are primarily run by private companies, provide housing for approximately 80 percent of inmates during the final months of their federal sentences. This measure aims to increase effectiveness and accountability of these programs through establishment of uniform standards for all providers, and collection and publication of performance data.
  • Covering the cost of state-issued IDs. Having a government-issued ID is critical to securing employment and housing, registering for school, opening bank accounts, and accessing other benefits, such as healthcare. By helping federal prisoners overcome this barrier and obtain documentation prior to release, this measure aims to increase likelihood of successful re-entry.
  • Enhancing programs for female inmates. The BOP has tried to increase overall and gender-specific programming for female prisoners. In keeping with that, it will be opening a new integrated treatment facility specifically for women, which will include substance abuse, mental health, and trauma treatment programs. 

These reforms build on existing efforts spearheaded by the Obama administration to reduce recidivism and improve living conditions for people behind bars in federal facilities. A full list of recent reforms is available on a new Department of Justice website.

Also last week, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to pass the 21st Century Cures Act. This wide-ranging bill includes funding for cancer research and mental health, and establishes nearly $1 billion in grants to help states combat the nationwide opioid epidemic (opioids are a class of drugs including heroin, fentanyl, and prescription painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone). In 2014, 47,055 people died from drug overdoses — the equivalent of about 125 Americans every day. Opioids accounted for 61 percent of these overdose deaths. This bill would make much needed funding available to expand access to treatment in communities hit particularly hard.

While the bill enjoyed executive and bipartisan support, some, such as Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) expressed concerns that provisions of the bill streamline the drug approval process, making it easier for big pharmaceutical companies to get the greenlight to develop new drugs.

While improving federal prison conditions and expanding substance use treatment and mental health services are important steps, there is much more the Obama administration and Congress can do to advance reform prior to Trump taking the reins.

Obama should accelerate commutations of prisoners sentenced under outdated mandatory minimum penalties, which penalized crack at 100 times the rate of powder cocaine. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act and narrowed the disparity between the two forms of the drug. However, the law was not made retroactive. As of March, 2016, more than 4,912 federal prisoners were serving sentences for crack convictions. In a 2015 report 15 Executive Actions, the Brennan Center urged the Obama Administration to actively search out and identify all federal prisoners whose sentences would be reduced if the FSA were retroactively applied, expedite review of these petitions and implement a presumption to recommend reductions in sentences for all such prisoners— barring exceptional circumstances. The Brennan Center also joined numerous other criminal justice advocates in calling on the president to immediately act and commute these unjust and overly harsh sentences.

Congress should also pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. This bill, which has support from a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, advocacy groups, and law enforcement, would reduce many mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent, low-level federal offenders. If passed it would be a huge step toward reducing our oversized federal prison population.