As Some Federal Offenders Win Early Release, New Tool Is Unveiled to Evaluate Likelihood of Recidivism

By Debra Cassens Weiss, ABA Journal

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Thousands of federal prisoners already are benefiting from early release reforms in the criminal justice reform bill known as the First Step Act, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed Friday.

The department announced that more than 3,100 inmates are being released from federal prison because of an increase in good time credit under the law. Another 1,691 inmates have had their sentences reduced under a provision in the law that allows sentence reductions for offenders sentenced for crack cocaine under older, tougher laws, according to a press release.

President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act in December 2018. The law shortens some federal sentences and gives federal judges more discretion to bypass mandatory minimum sentences for some offenders.

The law also allows some federal inmates to earn credits toward early supervised release by completing programs to reduce recidivism.

The DOJ is using $75 million in existing resources to fund implementation of the First Step Act. The department hopes to work with Congress to ensure funding in future years.

A new tool unveiled by the DOJ Friday predicts the likelihood that a prisoner will reoffend after release from prison. The tool will be used to identify inmates who may qualify for early release by participating in prison programs.

The tool is known as PATTERN, short for the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs.

The tool will consider “dynamic” factors, such as participation in education and drug treatment programs, along with “static risk factors,” such as age and crime of conviction.

Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney who’s now an advocate for sentencing reform, tells the ABA Journal that he has a mixed reaction to the announcement.

Tolman says he’s glad to see the prisoner releases based on good time credit, is glad to see that the DOJ is using $75 million for immediate changes, and is glad that the DOJ is asking Congress for more money.

He also was glad to see that the DOJ plans to include dynamic factors in its risk assessment tool. But he wants to know more about how the risk assessment tool will be used.

The risk assessment has to be very dynamic and should help inmates lower their risk of recidivism, he says. If reassessments are conducted periodically, inmates can see whether they are lowering their recidivism risk and whether they are able to go to a halfway house sooner, he says.

Tolman thinks U.S. Attorney General William Barr is implementing the First Step Act in good faith. But more has to be done, he says. He would like to see enactment of laws barring employers from inquiring into criminal records and allow inmates to use federal Pell Grants to pay for education.

In a statement, Barr said the DOJ “is committed to and has been working towards full implementation of the First Step Act.”

“Our communities are safer when we do a better job of rehabilitating offenders in our custody and preparing them for a successful transition to life after incarceration,” Barr said.

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Olivia McDowellComment