White House Pushing to Help Prisoners Before Their Release

By Justin George, The Marshall Project

The White House is racing to help an estimated 2,200 federal 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.

A police officer and a correctional officer patrol the entrance of the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma. SAUL LOEB/AFP, VIA GETTY IMAGES

A police officer and a correctional officer patrol the entrance of the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma. SAUL LOEB/AFP, VIA GETTY IMAGES

The early release is made possible by the First Step Act, a federal law passed with bipartisan support in December that is aimed at refocusing the criminal justice system on rehabilitation. The prisoners scheduled to be let out in July are the largest group to be freed so far. Their sentences are being reduced thanks to a clause that goes into effect next month, which effectively increased the amount of credit prisoners could get for good conduct in custody.

The intent of the law was to train people before they leave prison to find work and to screen them for any risk they might pose to public safety, but it’s unlikely that those steps will occur before a looming legal deadline.

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.

Much is 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.

Rearrests 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.

Until now, the act’s biggest impact 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.

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