12th Mar 2015
Two bills have been introduced in the Senate that have the goal of reducing recidivism. They build on related bills that were written in the last session of Congress. The main bill is S. 467, which the bill’s authors (most notably Senator Cornyn of Texas) titled the “Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers In Our National System Act” so that they could refer to it as the “CORRECTIONS Act.” As of March 9, four Republican and four Democratic Senators are backing this bill. The other bill is S. 449, which Senator Portman of Ohio presented, and it contains only some of the proposals that S. 467 makes. We will have to see whether his bill has any lasting effect.
What would the CORRECTIONS Act do to get people out of prison sooner and keep them out?
The CORRECTIONS Act relies on (1) getting good research on which programs for inmates actually work and on (2) the Attorney General (AG) and Bureau of Prisons (BOP) doing a good job of implementing these programs. It would have the AG create a “Post-Sentencing Risk and Needs Assessment System” such that every inmate would be categorized as having a high, moderate, or low risk of recidivism. Based on how they’re assessed, each inmate would (ideally) be able to participate in programs that have been scientifically shown to help reduce recidivism. (These programs could be things like mentoring, cognitive behavior therapy, a prison job, occupational training, or faith-based classes — anything with evidence to show that it works.)
As inmates participate in these recidivism reduction programs, they may earn time credits. Those with a low risk of recidivism would earn 10 days of time credits for every 30 days they successfully participate in recidivism reduction programs; those categorized as moderate or high risk would earn 5 days of time credits for the same. The time earned under these credits would apply for time spent in prerelease custody instead of in prison, as long as the prisoner is classified as having a low risk of recidivism or if their recidivism risk has decreased since they entered prison. (“Prerelease custody” means in a halfway house, in home confinement, or on community supervision.) However, these time credits are not available after certain convictions (see below).
These are only some of the main proposals of the CORRECTIONS Act; it also includes other studies and reports related to things like the reentry of prison inmates into mainstream society. This act took the text of last session’s S. 1675, the “Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act,” and added some more ideas to it, so many of the things we said about S. 1675 last year also describe the CORRECTIONS Act.
What are the weak points of the bill’s provisions?
- Although this bill promotes time credits so that prisoners may be released from prison earlier (and the prison population hopefully reduced), a lot of people would be excluded from the time credits the bill would grant because the bill excludes time credits for prisoners if any of the following are true:
- They are serving their second sentence for a Federal offense.
- When they were sentenced, they were in criminal history category VI.
- They are serving a sentence for a Federal crime of terrorism, violence, a sex offense, major organized crime (i.e., a conviction under Title 18 U.S.C. §1962 or Title 21 U.S.C. §848), fraud (if their original sentence was longer than 15 years), or child exploitation.
- The programs this bill has in view depend upon money being available to support them. It might not be safe to assume that appropriations will be available.
- This bill asks a lot of the Federal bureaucracy, namely the AG and the BOP. Although this bill’s goals for how long it will take the BOP to put in place these provisions are more reasonable than the proposals for recidivism reduction programs current in the House of Representatives, given the burdens and bureaucratic inefficiencies the BOP is already dealing with, will these proposals be implemented wisely, justly, and promptly?
Is the current language likely to remain the same?
No, although the overarching ideas will likely remain in some form. Last year, a similar bill was significantly changed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
For a bill to become law, both the Senate and the House of Representatives have to agree on a single version of the bill. There is already a bill with some similar ideas in the House. These House and Senate bills have some substantial differences in how their proposals are implemented. For instance, the House bill would reward participating inmates with much more generous time credits than the Senate bill does. Perhaps the House will abandon the first House bill and agree on a version of the Senate’s bill, or maybe the Senate will abandon its initial proposals in order to pass some version of the first House bill. It may be difficult to agree on a final draft of their provisions, and we cannot predict what final compromise may be worked out.
Is this bill likely to become law? If so, when?
The chances of this bill becoming law are very small, but not nil. It is a good sign that a bipartisan group of Senators is supporting it. The main hindrances to its passage are, first, that Congress has to make time to work on it, and second, that it needs to pass the House of Representatives as well. If some version of these bills has not become law by the end of 2016, lawmakers will have to start all over from the beginning of the process.
We will post updates as Congress works on proposals for federal sentencing reforms. Stay tuned!
by Viola Coulter