By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Roughly 3,100 U.S. inmates, including many convicted of drug offences, will be released early from federal prisons for good behaviour under a criminal justice reform law signed last year by President Donald Trump, the Justice Department said on Friday.
Officials detailed the early impact of the law, passed with bipartisan support in Congress last December and championed by criminal justice advocates across the political spectrum to help reduce sentencing disparities for low-level offences historically with higher conviction rates for racial minorities.
In addition to the good behaviour releases, officials said more than 1,691 inmates have had their sentences reduced after a provision in the law retroactively recalculated sentences to reduce disparities between those who committed crimes involving crack versus powder cocaine. Those convicted for crack offences historically have been more likely to be a racial minority.
The law, called the First Step Act, eases harsh sentencing rules for non-violent offenders and requires the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons to implement new programs to help reduce recidivism. It also required the bureau to retroactively recalculate good behaviour credits, a step that reduces some sentences by up to 54 days per year.
Previously, inmates could earn only up to 47 days per year towards early release for good behaviour.
Criminal justice advocates were under the impression the new calculation would apply retroactively when the law went into effect. But a drafting error in the legislation prevented the Justice Department from immediately applying the new method of calculating good-behaviour credits until it finalised a risk-assessment tool that will be used to determine each inmate’s risk of becoming a repeat offender.
The deadline for completing that tool was Friday, prompting the early release of the more than 3,100 inmates from federal prisons around the United States, including people serving time for drug and weapons offences.
The tool will assign each inmate a risk category, based on how likely it is calculated that they would commit new offences including violent crimes. Those at a high risk of re-offending will be steered into recidivism-reduction programs.
It also allows for inmates to build up “earned time” credits enabling them to be released early into halfway houses.
The Justice Department drew the ire of Democrats and some criminal justice advocates in April when it announced it had tapped the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute think tank to develop the risk assessment tool.
In addition, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said the department has allotted $75 million in existing resources for fiscal year 2019, which ends Sept. 30, to expand opioid addiction treatments and educational programs in federal prisons under the First Step Act. That $75 million is being taken from other programs within the Bureau of Prisons, though the department did not specify which programs may be affected.
Inimai Chettiar, a legislative and policy director for the Justice Action Network, which championed the bill, said Friday’s announcement shows progress is being made to carry out the law, but concerns remain.
“We’d like to know the details of where that is coming from,” Chettiar said of the redirected funding, adding that it also should not “take the place of Congress fully funding” the law.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham)