More than 2,200 federal inmates are heading home to their families this month thanks to the First Step Act, the bipartisan prison reform bill President Trump signed into law last year, according to policy experts and prisoner advocates involved in the effort.
Their sentences are being reduced thanks to a clause in the First Step Act that goes into effect next month, which effectively increased the amount of credit prisoners could get for good conduct in custody.
“We’re a nation that believes in redemption,” the President Trump said, noting Americans with criminal backgrounds are unemployed at rates up to five times the national average, which was around 3.8 percent earlier this year. “You’re gonna have an incredible future.”
The prisoners scheduled to be let out in July will be the largest group to be freed so far under a clause in the First Step Act that reduces sentences due to “earned good time.” In addition to family reunification, the formerly incarcerated citizens, 90 percent of whom have been African-American, hope to get employment opportunities touted by Trump last month at the White House as part of the “Second Chance” hiring program.
President Trump’s staff is racing to help the prisoners line up work and housing before they are released next month, according to several policy experts and prisoner advocates who have been involved in the effort.
The Trump Administration has asked the private sector to help the ex-prisoners re-acclimate to their newfound freedom with jobs and housing in one of the largest criminal justice public-private-partnerships ever assembled.
Members of the bipartisan group that pushed for the new law are eager to celebrate the early releases, but they also are concerned that the inmates aren’t adequately prepared to land jobs, find housing or obtain transportation from prison to the places they will now live. Much of that help was supposed to come through programs within the First Step Act, but Congress has not yet funded the five-month-old law, and the Department of Justice has so far failed to allocate significant funding from its budget for it.
There is a lot at stake if the prisoners fail on the outside. Future criminal justice reforms – including efforts to revise rigid sentences, offer more alternatives to prisons and reconsider old drug laws – could be set back if dozens of people reoffend and go back to prison or if someone commits a high-profile crime. About 45 percent of people released from federal prison go back within five years, according to a U.S. Sentencing Commission study.
Those who are rearrested could also jeopardize congressional funding for the First Step Act, which has had a wide-ranging effect on the federal justice system. The law has already limited the length of sentences for drug crimes, improved prisoner treatment and cleared the way for more inmates with serious health problems to finish their sentences at home.
The act’s biggest impact until now has come from a provision that reduced especially heavy sentences for crack cocaine. The change resulted in shortened sentences for 826 prisoners and set free 643 federal inmates, according to the DOJ.
President Trump and his administration will provide help for the formerly incarcerated stay out of prison, but they also need help from businesses, service providers, churches and religious groups in their neighborhoods, said Carrie Pettus-Davis, executive director of the Institute for Justice Research and Development at Florida State University.
“It is critically important that as many reentry supports that can be put into place are put into place,” she said.
It’s unfortunate that many prisoners that were eligible for release in July could have been let go earlier if not for a bureaucratic disagreement over how much sentences could be reduced by good conduct. The federal Bureau of Prisons, which has a track record of being resistant to early releases, authorized just 47 days a year. But the First Step Act clarified that inmates could earn up to 54 days a year. Since the law was passed, the Department of Justice has blocked early release requests based on the 54-day provision, citing another part of the new law that calls for a risk assessment first. A committee of criminal justice academics, former prison officials and the Hudson Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, is working under DOJ auspices to come up with a screening program for that task.
But the First Step Act also included a deadline – giving the Justice Department seven months to get the system up and running. That deadline arrives in mid-July, and the White House believes that the DOJ can no longer stand in the way.
“The delay’s been incredibly frustrating, and we know that because we’ve been in touch with families who’ve been expecting their loved one to come home the day the bill was signed,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
Not everyone believes that the prisoners will be freed next month. Brandon Sample, an attorney in Vermont who represents prisoners awaiting release, said he expects the Bureau of Prisons to find technicalities to snag inmates and further delay the releases. “The Bureau of Prisons doesn’t like the First Step Act, and they’re going to do everything they can to impede the will of the legislature,” Sample said. The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment.