A First Step

ALERT TO ALL WITH SHORT ATTENTION SPANS: THIS IS RATHER LONG. You might need to take a couple of breaks, but don't give up.

By existing statute, inmates who behave themselves can have their sentences reduced by earning 54 days of "good time credits" for each year of incarceration. However, the Bureau of Prisons has interpreted 54 days to mean 47 days. This alone should tell Congress that it's a bad idea to leave the execution of its intentions to the interpretation of the BoP. I'm not sure Congress has learned its lesson.

On May 22, 2018, the US House passed the First Step Act by a vote of 360 to 59, in a rare bipartisan vote. Those who voted against the bill did so primarily because they want to do more and because they, like me, don't trust the Department of Justice and particularly the Bureau of Prisons to implement the legislation in such a way as to fulfill its intentions. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate, but many Senators want to see more prison reform along with sentencing reform, which is a non-starter for the White House and House republicans who seem to want harsher sentences. I can't help but wonder why democrats who want to see more prison and sentencing reform now didn't do exactly that when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, but I digress. So, I applaud those in Congress for trying to address the unadulterated mess that is our current federal prison system. But as someone who, through his own fault, has experienced the Bureau of Prisons up close and personal, I have some concerns.

So, here's my editorialized summary of the First Step Act, if anyone cares. 1. The bill reiterates to the Bureau of Prisons that 54 days means 54 and not 47. No more funny business. Now 54 is a weird number. It should be 73 (20%) or 91 (25%). Since these days are earned by good behavior, why not truly reward a desired outcome? If the bill did nothing else than raise good time credits to 91 days, it wouldn't be a homerun, but it would be a line-drive double to the gap instead of a broken-bat bloop single.

2. The bill authorizes $50 million per year for 5 years for prison education and vocational training. If these programs are administered by the BoP, this will be a $250 million 5 year long toilet flush, not uncommon in Washington, DC, but wasteful nonetheless. While this type of education and training is vitally important, it will be unproductive if administered by the BoP, an organization that has proven over many years it has no real interest in or capacity to implement and manage educational or vocational programs, other than checking a box on a form to indicate something "happened." Anyone who doubts this should invest 20 minutes in a conversation with the educational supervisor at Bastrop FCI, whose supervision sadly includes the camp. Then consider an organization that would hire, tolerate and promote such incompetence. For further insight into camp education at Bastrop, see my post here. Obviously the bill is trying, through education and job training, to reduce recidivism. That's not a bad idea, if done correctly. However the best way to reduce recidivism is to shorten sentences and get low risk inmates back with their families and support networks who can provide the best chance of obtaining employment. The longer an inmate remains incarcerated, the lower the chances are of finding meaningful employment. That's not rocket science.

3. The bill expresses the intent of Congress that inmates should get their maximum amount of time in home confinement. Currently that's 10% of a sentence up to a maximum of 6 months. This often doesn't happen here at Bastrop Federal Satellite Camp. A recent example, 1 of many this year, occurred when an inmate was told 22 days before he was to leave that his home confinement time had been cut from 6 months to 1 month. While this expression of Congressional intent sounds good, currently the BoP requires inmates to stop off at a halfway house for a few weeks of so called "orientation" before going to home confinement. This is so the halfway house can make some extra money. Unfortunately, this section contains language that the BoP shall "to the extent possible" give the maximum time. So if the Austin halfway house is full, as it is most of the time, well...it ain't possible. Sorry inmate, and so much for Congressional intent.

4. The bill reauthorizes and broadens an elderly family reunification pilot program that was tried in selected prisons in 2009 and 2010. It defines "elderly" as over age 60 and allows an elderly, non-violent, first-time offender to spend the last 1/3 of his/her sentence in home confinement. Again and unfortunately, the bill leaves much of the implementation of this up to the BoP. Obviously this part of the bill caught my attention. However, this might not be "phased in" in time to impact me.

5. There are other parts of the bill requiring the Attorney General, with the help of the BoP and other groups, to come up with a plan to produce a "risk and needs assessment system." After the AG's report, the BoP is supposed to evaluate every inmate and to provide "evidenced based recidivism programs and productive activities" for inmates. It's unimaginable to think the BoP hasn't already evaluated every inmate. If they haven't, it's doubtful they will accomplish this effectively. Essentially the bill asks the Attorney General to create and monitor a plan to teach pigs to fly. No doubt the BoP will report back that they are flying, with a box checked on a form indicating their flight plans and another box acknowledging that successful flights are taking place all over the country. The AG has up to 180 days to come up with the plan and the BoP has up to 180 days to evaluate every inmate and then up to 2 years to figure out how to get around the plan while playing lip service to it.

6. The bill provides for electronic monitoring as the preferred method of monitoring inmates sent to home confinement. I predicted this would happen now that the private prison companies have diversified into the electronic monitoring business. Look for private prison companies to also cash in on "evidence based recidivism reduction programs and productive activities" in "recidivism reduction partnerships." I told you those guys had the best lobbyists.

7. Finally, the bill allows inmates to earn extra good time days for educational and vocational classes, as implemented by the BoP. Who knows what this will ultimately mean? Probably nobody. The bill specifically excludes any classes taken before the act which seems dumb unless Congress is sending a message to the BoP that it knows the current educational programs are a farce.

Without a doubt, this bill has good intentions. Unfortunately, it's also clear that the House has no clue how the prison industrial complex really works. Maybe they know and just don't care, but my sense is that they do care and are trying to get the appropriate people out of prison into productive lives while saving the American taxpayers some money. It's better than nothing and certainly better than what we have, but rightly named the First Step Act as it's a baby step. Just wait, the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing prison workers, will scream long and hard about this bill, as they have vested interest in keeping the mess we now have.

Hopefully the Senate will act on their version of this bill and address some of these issues. It's certainly a chance for the House, the Senate and the White House to collectively accomplish something, addressing a need that's been ignored too long.