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July 11, 2019

More encouraging news of how FIRST STEP Act is reorienting DOJ priorities

USA Today has this fascinating new lengthy article under the headlined "Roofing, paving, artisanal bread: Feds look to kick-start law that will free hundreds of inmates." As the headline suggests, the article is about all the interesting activity afoot to effectively implement the FIRST STEP Act. I recommend the article in full, and here are excerpt:

Set in the foothills of the soaring Rocky Mountains, the mud-colored cluster of Depression-era structures has been a fixture in the federal penal system for decades.  Although just 10 miles south of Denver, notoriety has rarely found its way here except on the occasions when the Federal Correctional Institute Englewood’s worn cellblocks have housed the likes of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling and disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich

Now, the 320-acre compound — distinguished by coils of razor wire and guard tower — is poised to play a leading role in a major criminal justice experiment.  Justice Department officials, including newly-installed Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, have cut a path to this unlikely place in recent days to tout a series of rehabilitation programs that could be key to supporting the early release and re-entry of waves of federal inmates set to be released as part of a criminal justice overhaul approved by Congress last year.

Inside Englewood, a culinary arts program is training aspiring chefs to pump out artisanal breads, pastries and cakes.  An architectural drafting operation, manned by inmates, has produced designs for hundreds of chain restaurants and is assisting with a flood prevention project for the Port Authority of New York.

The prison’s signature enterprise, however, may be its most promising.  Thirteen inmates are part of a roofing and road paving crew that travels the country more than seven months of the year tending to repairs and new construction at federal government installations scattered from the Great Lakes to New England.  The crew members, many of whom have acquired valuable commercial drivers’ licenses while in prison and the skills to operate heavy machinery, have saved the federal government nearly $30 million in labor costs during the past three years, federal authorities said.

"I never thought I would get a chance to do something like this in prison," said Littlelee Ragsdale, a 36-year-old Wyoming man who is in the midst of a nine-year term for methamphetamine and heroin distribution. "This a great opportunity for a real career outside of here. It's not just one of those jobs to get by. Re-entry (to the free world) is now a realistic goal."

Leaning on the promise of Englewood’s programs and others like them scattered across the Bureau of Prisons system, Attorney General William Barr later this month is expected to unveil a tool that could shave years from the sentences of non-violent offenders like Ragsdale as part of the First Step Act, a sweeping law designed to reduce the federal prison population while easing offenders' transition back to their communities.  Congress approved the law last year with support from both parties.  Barr is set to lay out rules on July 19 for evaluating federal inmates that could speed their path toward release. On the same day, a separate provision of the law will prompt the release of an estimated 2,200 non-violent offenders based on a re-calculation of the credit they receive for good behavior while in custody....

The vast federal prison system has long been a drag on the government, soaking up more than a quarter of the Justice Department's $28 billion budget.  Even though its prison population has dropped since 2014, with 180,664 inmates, it is still the largest penal system in the United States.  The system holds more than seven times as many inmates as it did in 1980, at the start of the nation's drug war and a "tough-on-crime" strategy that featured mandatory minimum prison sentences for repeat drug offenses that doomed some inmates to more than two decades behind bars.  More than 45% of federal inmates are now serving terms for some type of drug offense, by far the largest offense grouping in the system....

Longtime advocates for such criminal justice reforms, who also have often been the fiercest critics of the Justice Department, are encouraged by the recent action but are wary of the challenges confronting full implementation of the law.  "I think they are doing their best to get prepared," said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has long highlighted the impact of harsh sentencing policy on families of the incarcerated. "The real test will be in the implementation of all of the different pieces."

I viewed passage of the FIRST STEP Act as such a big deal is because it created formal legal structures and reasons for the Justice Department to worry more about helping improve the prospects for people in federal prison and on their way out of federal prison rather than being only focused on putting more people in federal prison and trying to keep them in federal prison.  I find this article encouraging because it highlights how, thanks to the FIRST STEP Act, DOJ is now giving more time and attention to "a series of rehabilitation programs" (and apparently to promoting their DOJ's work to the press).

More generally, I believe Kevin Ring and other reform advocates are right to be encouraged by some aspects of DOJ's approach to the FIRST STEP Act, but the really big implementation tests are just getting started with release of the risk and needs assessment system coming next week and then BOP having up to 2.5 years to fully implement next steps.  I continue to be encouraged by big and small developments in this space, and I think we might even see the election season come to provide reform benefits rather than burdens.  If FIRST STEP Act implementation goes too slowly or poorly, Dems on the campaign trail might seek to assail the efficacy of a signature achievement of Prez Trump, and Prez Trump might in turn put added pressure on DOJ and others to do better.  (Indeed, I think DOJ's encouraging work to date and especially AG Barr's expected timely release of the risk and needs assessment system is a product of an eagerness to look good in the eyes of the President.)

A few of many prior related posts:

July 11, 2019 at 12:38 PM | Permalink


Long before the First Step Act was the USDOL Apprenticeship Programs. I was blessed to participate in such and earned an 8-thousand hour program of apprenticeship as a Certified Landscape Technician. Only TWO people were enrolled in the program out of 3000 Federal inmates. So, this was back in 2005-2008. But there were opportunities back then too.

Posted by: Tony | Jul 11, 2019 3:05:03 PM

DOJ, what is the purpose of Probation?

Posted by: LC in Texas | Jul 12, 2019 11:59:59 AM

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