‘Substantial’ Federal Prison Reform Still Needed: Report

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Photo by Kate Ter Haar via Flickr

The new federal First Step Act is an “important accomplishment,” but many of its reforms to the prison system do not go so far as those recommended by the Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections that was created by Congress in 2014, writes a team from the Urban Institute.

“Substantial reform work remains to be done,” say Julie Samuels, Nancy La Vigne and Chelsea Thomson in a new brief on federal prison issues.

The group says areas for future reform include expanding inmate eligibility for
earned time credits while in custody, making all changes in federal sentencing reform and provisions retroactive and adopting other reforms recommended by the Colson Task Force in 2016.

The overall goal, contends the Urban Institute team, is to “reserve prison for those convicted of the most serious crimes.”

Applying all sentencing provisions in the First Step Act retroactively would allow those incarcerated under the old rules on repeat drug and gun offenses and “safety valve” provisions that allow judges to reduce prison terms the opportunity to have their sentences reconsidered under the new rules.

The Colson Task Force advocated eliminating mandatory minimum sentences except for those given to drug kingpins, a reform not taken in the First Step Act.

Among other task force recommendations that were not included in the new law were creation of a visitation and family affairs office at the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to oversee and ease visitation procedures and establishment of a “second look” process that would allow an inmate to apply for resentencing after 15 years of incarceration.

The Colson panel also urged improving chance of successful reintegration of those leaving federal prison by improving coordination among BOP, the federal probation agency and residential reentry centers for inmates by sharing information on prisoners’ risk and needs assessment, their participation in prison programs, and their medical and mental health status.

The task force also called for setting up a new Performance Accountability Oversight Board to monitor the federal prison system. The board would oversee changes in policy and practice. The Colson group advocated lifting the federal ban on Pell grants to support those who want to pursue their education beyond the high school level.

“Federal corrections reform has been long overdue,” writes the Urban Institute team, saying that the Colson Task Force’s recommendations “offer a roadmap for further improving federal sentencing and corrections policy.”

That would result, says the institute, in “a federal prison system better aligned with recidivism reduction principles and research evidence, enhanced public safety, a smaller federal prison population, and fewer lives negatively impacted by the criminal justice system.”

There were 180,634 federal inmates as of May 9, down from a peak of nearly 220,000 in 2013.

Additional Reading: First Step Act Only a First Step, The Crime Report, Feb. 18, 2019

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.

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