I always wonder who writes these crime bills and the First Step Act (FSA) is no different. After reading the flavor of the week, I just need to remind myself there is no reason to get upset because it’s just more beltway dysfunction. While the FSA is actually worse than most of the recent legislation, it has managed to get passed in the House. My DC union connections have assured me it is DOA in the Senate which provides some comfort.
Let’s hope the FSA is just one of the many other head fakes we have experienced in the past few Congresses. I’m going to do something different in this blog by providing some technical information about the bill’s deficits which I recently sent to the BOP. It’s a longer, technical read and will debate and/or explain the merits of the content with anyone, anytime, anywhere!
The FSA makes me reflect back on the Inmate Skills Development System (ISDS) which was recently discontinued because of its ineffectiveness after many years of implementation and costs. This bill is going down the same road with the new “risk assessment tool”. It’s also discriminatory, underfunded and gives the agency far too much discretion.
It is obvious the authors never worked in or served time in a federal prison classification or treatment setting or have even a basic understanding of agency policy. My disconnect with this legislation is most of the intended goals can be better accomplished at far less cost with a much quicker implementation under the existing statutory framework aside from the good time fix.
Risk Assessment Tool: (Here’s where it get’s technical)
Rather than developing an entirely new risk assessment tool; the current BOP risk assessment tool in the computer system known as “SENTRY” can be modified. The tool known as the “custody classification form” (aka: BP-338) already includes dynamic factors which are referred to in this bill. This tool can be modified to obtain the objective rather than putting the time and resources into the development of a totally new tool which would be unfamiliar to the agency.
When I speak to advocates inside the beltway regarding this tool, they are either unaware it exists or are under the impression that it only includes static factors. That is evident in The Leadership Counsel letter because they are concerned about using the BOP tool. They are simply incorrect because the BP-338, Custody Classification transaction is predominately dynamic factors. They must be confusing it with the BP-337 which is static. Although the initial security designation tool (aka: BP-337) includes static factors, the yearly classification review process (BP-338) includes mostly dynamic factors which are used in other tools nationwide. These dynamic factors determine a recommendation regarding “custody” with the treatment staff having the final determination on the outcome.
Without getting too much into the “weeds” of custody classification; think of custody as an equivalent to the reduction in recidivism (ie: risk) that is totally separate than the assigned security level (Min/Low/Med/High). The graduated, 4 level, custody classification system of Maximum, In, Out and Community is what determines the individual’s responsibility and what correctional environment they can be managed in. The current methodology is something the BOP can easily understand and implement with only minor modifications to the existing SENTRY program. This bill assess risk as minimum, low medium and high which will totally confuse the agency because of the 4 level security level system.
To better understand this concept, one must understand the historical perspective. In the 1980’s, before the wide adoption of satellite camps, inmates who were classified as medium and high security could be assigned “OUT” custody so they could be assigned gate passes to work outside the institution perimeter. At that time, it was a 6-level custody system (1 through 6), with custody levels 5 and 6 being the equivalent to today’s high security.
Even inmates with custody level 4’s and 5’s were able to obtain gate passes because their risk level was considered low.
Analogy 1: A medium security person who was reduced to “Out” custody was determined to be a minimal/low risk of recidivism because we felt he had the responsibility to go outside the fence and work on the reservation with two hr. intermittent supervision. The current BP-338 “tool” recommended a reduction and it was approved by the unit team.
Analogy 2: When the same person progressed and was under 2 years from release, we had the ability to approve “community” custody to participate in community programs because we felt he had minimal risk (or the lowest risk) of recidivism. In fact, this methodology actually exists today; “John Smith” who is a “High” security level in a United States Penitentiary (“USP”) departs for the Residential Re-entry Center (“RRC”). Mr. Smith goes from “IN” custody to “COMMUNITY” custody immediately to participate in community programs at the RRC.
Custody is discretionary depending on the risk factors entered into the computer program, and the unit team or the warden in certain cases has the authority to increase or decrease custody level at any time during the sentence regardless of the security level. Therefore, the lowest risk for recidivism would be “community” and the highest risk would be “Maximum”.
Real Case: For instance, I can recall an Aryan Brotherhood member who actually killed someone but was eventually assigned a gate pass (ie: low risk) because of the time that had elapsed since the instant offense, his programming, behavior and ensuing release date. The 338 custody classification system recommended the reduction, the unit team supported it and the warden approved it because of the “low risk”. That situation explains the general concept how almost anyone can be considered and approved for a minimum or low risk so it is already within the agency framework for implementation. From my recollection that person became a mentor after release and was involved with “Kairos” prison ministry.
It’s important to remember when the data is keyed on the BP-338 (PPG7), the computer always makes a recommendation regarding the new custody (increase, decrease, same). It’s the unit team’s final decision to approve the recommendation because there is a tendency in the program to recommend a decrease when it may not be warrant when all factors are assessed.
Similar to Sec.407- of HR 3356, there is section on page 12, par. 13 (D) which contains a list of crimes which are excludable. This is extremely confusing because the BOP has a policy entitled “Categorization of Offenses”, PS # 5162.5, which is the policy to determine who is excluded from receiving program benefits based on the nature of their crime as a “Crime of Violence” or as a “Director’s Discretion” case. Why would we have an entire, meticulous policy on this subject but create another arbitrary list of exclusionary crimes referenced in this bill?
I am going to assume the authors here were unaware that the aforementioned BOP policy exists and/or they do not realize the BOP has SENTRY “CMA” computer assignments for violent crime classification and the WALSH Act (sex offender cases).
It’s confusing to say the least why we would have a separate list when this is already in the policy and agency practices? Note: in my humble opinion, we should remove ALL the Director’s discretion exclusions because it inhibits people from receiving Drug treatment due to the inability for early release. People are punished for their crimes by the length of the sentence and should not further be further punished when in the system. ALL people should be eligible and be able to earn the benefits regardless of the crime aside from Life sentences. We did not make such distinctions under the old law when it came to extra or statutory good time.
Elderly Offender Pilot changes and extension of the Second Chance Act:
Sec. 403, page 55, par. 8 extends the EOP and changes some criteria. This is confusing because some of the criteria have already been incorporated in the revision to the BOP’s compassionate release policy, some which is actually more liberal than this suggested change.
Compassionate Release, PS # 5050.49: The language in this bill further confuses this specific policy issue with differing criteria.
“b. Elderly Inmates with Medical Conditions. Inmates who fit the following criteria:
■ Age 65 and older. ■ Suffer from chronic or serious medical conditions related to the aging process. ■ Experiencing deteriorating mental or physical health that substantially diminishes their ability to function in a correctional facility. ■ Conventional treatment promises no substantial improvement to their mental or physical condition. ■ Have served at least 50% of their sentence.”
What is more practical here is to attempt to get the BOP to simply comply with the existing policy rather than expanding and reactivating the pilot which never reached its intended goal. To do this, we can:
1) Mandating the agency to refer cases who meet the program criteria to the sentencing court for a final determination unless the agency can demonstrate/document a credible risk to the community (with input from the USPO).
Example: I once referred a person to the original SCA pilot program who was denied for a “risk to the community” by the BOP-OGC yet the person was housed in a camp, worked alone at night snow plowing the grounds and roads up to the community road, and had been on several unescorted furloughs to a community doctor for medical appointments, etc. The original pilot program had a very low approval rate to begin with and making the criteria more liberal will not result in a significant change aside from the removal of the 10 year eligibility mandate which is a much needed change! I strongly support this aspect of the legislation.
2) Crediting the earned and “awarded” good conduct time towards any program eligibility is practical. This is statutorily possible under 18 USC 3621. The BOP “award” 54 days after each year served in the SENTRY data base and a separate transaction can be run to break down each and every award on the anniversary year. If we are “awarding” it, why would it not be credited towards any program which mandates a set term be completed prior to program participation? We use these very same awards to release inmates to the community so it would be a practical use of the agencies discretion to credit them when it comes to program participation.
For instance, a person who has served 8.5 years should be credited for 10 years and that time applied and calculated towards any criteria where a percentage of time is required. (ie: time served, plus good conduct time awarded is added together and credited towards the 2/3 calculation referred to in this legislation)
Recidivism reduction Programs:
With regard to recidivism reduction programs, this bill focuses too much on the programs over the individual’s treatment plan, abilities and criminogenic needs. We all know what happens when the BOP incentivizes a program like RDAP (Residential Drug Treatment). The waiting lists grow, the populations compete for program entrance and even create false stories in the pre-sentence reports to obtain program placement. Aside from the non-existent programs in the first place, the less savvy and marginalized population are denied program placement as they compete for acceptance. The end result is frustration, program manipulation and delays in programming. I’ve actually seen hundreds of people who didn’t need or qualify for RDAP had they not created a fictitious history prior to the PSR interview. It’s a cottage industry today. This actually makes institutions less safe and benefits the white collar types.
There is simply not a program infrastructure or the staffing for the type of recidivism reduction programs discussed in this legislation.
The actual BOP philosophy and policy consists of a comprehensive correctional treatment plan that addresses multiple deficit areas that are vital to rehabilitation and recidivism reduction. What is important to this concept is that as long as the inmate is making satisfactory progress towards the individualized, comprehensive correctional treatment plan, they should receive program benefits despite if the “program” itself is classified/determined as one that reduces recidivism. This takes the focus off of program itself and the inmates “shopping’ for the magic program where the incentive is more important than the program benefit. While it is practical to have evidenced based, recidivism reducing programs; someone of border line intelligence should earn the good time regardless of what program they complete regardless of the program classification.
It’s not a one size fits all situation. One person with cognitive deficiencies and poor impulse control can be awarded for simply participating in the GED and staying out of trouble vs a person of higher intelligence and no behavior issues would need to address their deficits by different programs fit for their own criminogenic factors.
In addition, comprehensive correctional treatment plans also address multiple deficit areas like education, behavior control, vocational training and substance abuse. Evidenced based programs “proven to reduce recidivism” must be utilized but only as part of the total comprehensive correctional treatment plan.
None of the above can be accomplished unless the BOP follows their own policy on a meaningful program review process rather than a hurried, sign the paper and get out philosophy. BOP administrators need to understand it the fundamental breakdown of the team process due to staffing jeopardizes public safety just as much as an escape, if not more. The sad part of this is that there needs to be a re-examination of the unit management concept and either scrap it or staff it as historically intended. The agency’s art of pretending they practice unit management principles can be easily debunked by a review of nation-wide practices. The most profound non legislative recommendation to reducing recidivism is to return to manageable case-loads of 100 people per case manager and counselor and conduct classification meetings like it was intended with a multi-disciplinary team which also includes the personal attendance of the psychology services and the education representative. This relationship development fosters safer institutional environments and protects the public.
The BOP policy regarding this process is governed by Program Statement 5322.13, Inmate Classification and Program Review (Program Statement 5322.13) which utilizes a comprehensive correctional treatment plan concept, instead of singling out a “Program” for an incentive approach.
When an inmate arrives at a federal prison facility, he/she receives an Initial Classification meeting within four (4) weeks of arrival (referred to as “Team”). At that time, feedback is solicited from the Psychology Services representative and Education Advisor, and a comprehensive correctional treatment plan is established with short-term and long-term goals for the inmate.
For example, a comprehensive correctional treatment plan for an inmate may specify the following: attend General Education Development (“GED”) courses for twenty (20) hours a week, with the long-term goal of GED completion in one year; complete the basic drug education program within 6 months with the long-term goal of transferring to a Residential Drug Abuse Program (“RDAP”); pay the assessment of $100 by paying down $25.00 monthly which satisfies the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program (“IFRP”). Further, the RDAP, the most desired single program, exemplifies the need for a comprehensive correctional treatment plan. This incentive-based program is not offered everywhere and the maximum program benefits are sometimes missed given to late enrollment dates due to waiting lists at many institutions. In addition, there are literally cottage industry type businesses creating drug abuse histories prior to the pre-sentence interview in order to qualify to attend the program. These offenders are occupying needed beds better utilized for inmates with actual abuse histories. Therefore, program shopping and manipulation may be curtailed with an individualized, comprehensive correctional treatment program.
Good time credit:
The most profound recommendation related to legislative proposals is the discriminatory awarding of good time. Historically & going back to the “old law” pre-1987; the BOP did not factor in the awarding of statutory or extra good time based upon the instant offense behavior. The severity of the offense determines the actual sentence and we have begun to further punish certain offenders after incarcerated for mostly political motives. This Bill is similar to Section 102 (e) 2 C of 3356 which lists categories of offenses who do not benefit from the good time.
What is so confusing about this list is not only what I referred to above regarding the Categorization of Offenses policy but also the “Early Release Procedures’ policy, Program Statement # 5331.02 which also includes excludable offenses and the director’s discretion cases. Although this subsequent policy deals with RDAP and 3621(e)- Early Release, it adds another bureaucratic layer and further complicates the entire concept of pre-release credits. The practical solution to this issue is simply returning to the “Old Law” good time system which was not only fair, equitable, and had the necessary incentives to encourage programming and good behavior; but it increased the safety of staff and inmates because inmates could earn back forfeited awards by maintain clear conduct. Inmates who followed their program plan and met work requirements and good behavior released to supervision at approximately 66% in what was referred to as “Mandatory Release”. The BOP still has old law inmates in the system so the infrastructure, familiarity and training is already part of the agency culture and SENTRY computer system. It could be implemented almost immediately at no cost and little training. Inmates who maximize the credits could be transferred to pre-release custody at 66% under varying degrees of community control based on the risk assessment. I am not suggesting a return to the parole system itself but simply the laws governing the statutory and extra good time.
A practical suggestion in regards to legislation is to use the 66% date as a community control program eligibility date for RRC and/or home detention eligibility (even work/study release).
Mentorship Pilot programs: While I am a strong supporter of expanding the Tier 2 volunteer program, it is hard to fathom how the agency is going to develop 10 pilot programs and expand tier two volunteers to ex-offenders when there are already many impediments to this program. Community members and organizations seeking Tier 2 credentials are often denied and are unaware of such clearances exist. I also question the stats that the BOP has enough of the target population to develop 10 pilots. Expanding a viable Tier 2 volunteer system with community entities like religious organizations, educational institutions, and other NGO’s is the practical solution for mentorship. Many people are unaware of the volunteer policy even exists:
Good time credits: It is unimaginable the BOP has the necessary RRC infrastructure to comply with this legislation. The BOP recently terminated 16 contracts nationwide and ordinarily places even high risk inmates for less than a 6 months in the RRC.
The agency never honored the spirit and intent of the Second Chance Act of 2007 to begin with. It is well documented and pointed out even by the DOJ-IG that inmates with low risk receive longer placements than high risk inmates and direct home detention is extremely under-utilized, including the Federal Location Monitoring program administered by the AOUSC.
There is insufficient infrastructure for such a good time incentive without a massive and costly expansion of existing and new contract facilities. This is extremely troubling on that no less than 8% of the appropriations in this bill are to be given out in state and local government grants. (page 81, par.2)
More Visiting/phone: The BOP does not have the infrastructure to facilitate more visiting and telephone privileges. It is also disingenuous to refer to “more email“, when email is already unlimited. There is a limited number of telephones and computers in each unit to facilitate this incentive. In addition, the BOP does not have the staffing and existing visiting room space to facilitate more visiting.
It should be noted all these incentives are “at the discretion of the warden”.
The incentives also signal to me the privatization lobby has planted the seeds to get video technology in every prison which can enable the agency to curtail in person visiting. That is just another way to gouge the inmate population and marginalized families similar to the telephone exploitation.
Transfer closer: This incentive is also disingenuous as the bill stipulates “if space available”, etc. The BOP finds it hard to place people within 500 miles with the existing facility infrastructure so this additional, discretionary incentive simply won’t happen.
These incentives are science fiction. They will collectively create a false expectation resulting in frustration and unsafe institution environments.
Other Privatization influences:
The 30 minutes more of telephone time per day incentive & video visitation would provide more revenue for the companies that gouge families especially in light of recent legislation overturning some cap regulations.
The UNICOR provision in this bill allows them to sell products to other “prisons” which means the BOP would be selling products to the private sector prisons they are contracting with. This is problematic for the additional competition for companies in the community but is even more problematic regarding ethical considerations due to the incestuous exodus of retiring BOP wardens and administrators to private sector correction companies. Given the lack of transparency of the BOP it is hard to imagine people retiring will not bend over backwards to please their former BOP mentors and contacts who arrange post-retirement landing sites in the private sector.
This legislation will take years to develop, is nearly impossible to implement as intended and allows the BOP too much discretion. The incentives such as good time credits cannot be honored because the funding for the infrastructure is not provided. This legislation will not result in a reduction of recidivism or increase public safety. It is underfunded, includes unrealistic incentives and may actually result in less safe facilities. It is discriminatory in nature by treating people differently once incarcerated relative to good time credits and brings back elements of the failed Inmate Skills Development System recently abandoned by the Bureau of Prisons.
Many of the intended goals can be accomplished within the existing statutory and policy framework by stronger executive branch leadership and oversite.