When the U.S. government initiated efforts in 2018 to reduce recidivism in federal prisons, the aim was to end the cycle that makes many inmates repeat offenders. To achieve that goal, inmates would engage in recidivism-reduction programs to earn increased good-conduct time.
But the lofty objectives of the First Step Act, approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump, still have a long way to go to live up to their potential, says Christopher Zoukis, author of the Directory of Federal Prisons and managing director of Zoukis Consulting Group www.prisonerresource.com.
The act was a good first step, no pun intended, but where it fails is by excluding too many categories of inmates from various benefit provisions. Inmates within over 60 categories of offenses are ineligible to earn credit toward early release under the act. For example, certain immigration, violent, sex offense, and drug offenders are ineligible from receiving additional good conduct time for program participation.
If the objective is to reduce recidivism, then It makes no sense to bar sex offenders, violent offenders and other more grim crimes from this benefit. We should want to promote healing and improved decision-making among all offenders, not simply the lowest-level offenders.
After all, he says, these offenders will be released at some point, and the public is better served if inmates participate in programs that make them less likely to commit crimes again.
With a new administration in Washington, this could be the opportune time to look at ways to improve how the federal Bureau of Prisons operates, and to place the focus on rehabilitating inmates who eventually will reenter society.
The Biden administration can do a lot of good to alleviate the wrongs of the past through executive orders and directives to the attorney general, such as:
• Consider home detention for minimum-security inmates. President Joe Biden should direct the Bureau of Prisons to consider all minimum-security inmates for placement on home detention. These are inmates who clearly don’t need the control or structure of prison. By allowing for enhanced home detention placement, these inmates can find jobs, reunite with their families, and live life with training wheels until the expiration of their sentences. For them, prison serves no legitimate aim other than retribution and punishment, something they have already realized after a few years away.
• Issue pardons for old offenses. Collateral consequences of criminal convictions hold former wrongdoers back. If someone has served their time, been released and maintained clear conduct for a longer period of time, he says, then a criminal conviction only hinders their future success. Biden should consider blanket pardons for those released from custody and with over 10 years clear conduct since their release. For these offenders, prior convictions only serve to harm, not advance any public policy objective.
• Rein in overly aggressive prosecution tactics. The Biden administration already has taken steps to limit aggressive prosecution tactics by federal prosecutors, but the president could do more. He says Biden should take this a step further by directing the U.S. Attorney’s Office to bring appropriate charges, not the most severe; recommend sentences that are just, rather than the harshest sentence that can be achieved; and offer meaningful plea bargains, not “ghost” plea bargains where federal prosecutors bring two similar charges with the intention of dropping one charge in a plea, but having the net effect of the same sentence.
The key with any piece of broader federal criminal justice reform legislation is that it should apply to the majority of inmates, not a select few that we deem worthy of relief.
Christopher Zoukis is the managing director of Zoukis Consulting Group. Visit www.prisonerresource.com.