The Senate Judiciary Committee combined the original “Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2013” (S. 1675) and what was called the “Federal Prison Reform Act of 2013” (S. 1783) to form a new version of S. 1675. This new version, now ready for the whole Senate to discuss, is called S. 1675, the “Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2014,” but it is substantially different from the initial version of S. 1675. It turned out this way because several senators (including Sen. Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Sen. Cornyn of Texas) contributed ideas from their state prison systems that had helped make their state prisons less costly and reduced their recidivism rate.

UPDATE: Although S. 1675 and S. 1783 were not enacted, their proposals were reintroduced in 2015 as “The CORRECTIONS Act” in the Senate, and some similar ideas were introduced in the House (click the preceding links to read about them). Or, for other developments, see a list of all our posts on bills in Congress.

It is a long bill, so here are a few of the changes it would make if it becomes law:

  • The Department of Justice (hereafter DOJ) will develop an assessment that categorizes each prisoner as having a low, moderate, or high risk of recidivism. Prisoners will be re-evaluated every couple of years. The bill sets a goal that, within two and a half years after it becomes law, every prisoner will have been assessed and categorized.
  • Prisoners with a low recidivism risk will be kept together as much as practicable.
  • The bill sets the goal that, six years after it becomes law, nearly every prisoner gets to participate in appropriate recidivism reduction programs and productive activities. (By “productive activities,” the bill’s authors mean things like prison jobs, counseling other prisoners in recidivism reduction programs, or anything else that the DOJ decides helps keep a prisoner’s recidivism risk low. “Nearly every prisoner” means those who are medically able, have a sentence of longer than a month, and would not “present a security risk if permitted to participate in recidivism reduction programming.”)
  • The recidivism reduction programs that the Bureau of Prisons (hereafter BOP) uses are supposed to be researched and evaluated by the DOJ to make sure that there is evidence that they are effective.
  • Prisoners who successfully complete recidivism reduction programs and productive activities will be rewarded. Prisoners will earn 5 days of time credit (10 days if they are classified as having a low risk of recidivism) for every 30 days of such activities they successfully complete. The BOP is supposed to develop other incentives besides time credits, and is authorized to reduce time credits for prisoners who break rules.
  • Prisoners cannot earn time credits for completing such activities 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.
  • If, near the end of a prisoner’s sentence, they are either (a) classified as having a low risk of recidivism or (b) both classified as moderate risk and their recidivism risk has decreased while they were in prison, then the time credits they have earned by recidivism reduction programs or productive activities count as time they can finish their sentence in a halfway house, in home confinement, or (in certain circumstances) under community supervision.
  • As the original version of S. 1675 did, this version of S. 1675 also directs the DOJ to study reentry practices and conduct pilot projects on reentry.
  • When a prisoner is sentenced, their Pre-sentence Investigation Report is to note their veteran status (if applicable) and to contain a plan for them to stop abusing drugs or alcohol (if applicable) and to assist them in preparing for reentry. As in the original version of S. 1675, inmates who need drug or alcohol abuse treatment programs must start them in time to complete them before they leave prison.

These are some good ideas that may help the federal prison population grow less swiftly and may reduce prison costs if they are implemented wisely. There are a couple of obstacles to its implementation that we foresee.

First, the bill stipulates that the recidivism reduction programming it calls for is “subject to the availability of appropriations.” The bill’s sponsors hope that these programs will be provided on a volunteer basis or, if paid for, provided by non-profit entities instead of for-profit entities. They also hope that since the programs the bill calls for include prison jobs, these reforms will pay for themselves. Nevertheless, considering the current state of the government’s budget, the availability of the money required to implement recidivism reduction programming could be a major obstacle.

Second, the effectiveness of these measures depends on the wisdom of the bureaucracy that implements them. Although the sponsoring Senators say that these reforms are based on measures that were successful in their states, a different set of people with a different ethos implemented them in their states. This bill demands a lot from the Attorney General and the Bureau of Prisons. (Besides the highlights above, they are asked to file several reports with Congress on recidivism rates and other statistics.) Given the burdens and bureaucratic inefficiencies the BOP is already dealing with, will it be able to implement these measures in the timetable that Congress calls for?

Third, this bill has yet to pass the Senate, and the associated House bill, H.R. 2656, was sent to a subcommittee eight months ago. The House version of the bill is substantially different from the current version of S. 1675 that we have just discussed. Thus, not only are there remaining opportunities for this bill to be amended, the Senate and House versions will have to be reconciled before it becomes law.

Despite our pessimism (both as to whether it is going to pass and as to whether it will yield the results hoped for, if it does pass), these ideas, if implemented, may help to alleviate some of the problems of prison overcrowding. Stay tuned for more updates.


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