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December 22, 2008

"Time Off For Bad Behavior"

Forbes magazine has this notable new piece highlighting one of the few programs in the federal criminal justice system that lets offenders earn a reduction in their sentencing terms.  This sub-heading from the article reveals why Forbes is covering this story: " White-collar offenders can get a year off their terms for doing rehab. Funny how many of them suddenly discover substance abuse problems." Here are snippets from the the piece:

[Sam] Waksal is just one of many white-collar inmates who have discovered the Bureau of Prison's Residential Drug Abuse Program.  Treatment for federal inmates who abuse drugs (that word defined to include ethyl alcohol) has been around since 1919.  But inmates weren't clamoring for rehab programs until Congress passed a law in 1994 offering up to 12 months off a sentence for nonviolent offenders who complete a counseling program.  That year only 3,755 inmates were in the rehab program. In 2008 there were 18,000 prisoners in it, with a wait list topping 7,000.

For offenders with lengthy sentences, 12 months may not matter much. But for white-collar criminals like class-action lawyer William Lerach, serving time in a kickback scheme, it can halve a sentence.  Unfortunately for Lerach, in June a judge denied his request for the program, ruling that he didn't appear to have an alcohol problem requiring intensive treatment.

The drug abuse program is so attractive it has cultivated a cottage industry of consultants who advise convicts and their lawyers on how to get in.  Among them is Larry J. Levine, who started American Prison Consultants after serving nine years for drug-related charges....

Some judges may tolerate overstretched abuse claims as a means to lessen unduly harsh sentences required under sentencing guidelines. Says John Martin, a former New York federal district judge: "A lot of judges feel, if a person is sentenced too long anyway, why not help him get any relief possible to get out earlier."  Washington, D.C., criminal defense lawyer Barry Boss, who denies any widespread abuse of the program, says: "When a 50-year-old first offender receives a 10-year prison sentence for an economic crime, I find it hard to accept that people are offended that the person may receive a year off for participation in a rigorous substance abuse program."

To be sure, there is some good that comes of the treatment program, an intense 500 hours of cognitive behavioral treatment over a nine-month period, during which participants are housed in a dorm-like unit set apart from the general population.  The Bureau of Prisons cites a 2000 study finding that male inmates who participate are 16% less likely to commit another crime and 15% less likely to relapse to drug use.

The 2009 Criminal Justice Transition Coalition, a group of organizations advocating criminal justice reform, is asking President-elect Barack Obama to expand the program to yet more inmates. Even Sam Waksal might drink to that. 

December 22, 2008 at 04:32 PM | Permalink


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