How El Chapo Met Lassie: Prison Reform Edition

When President Donald Trump appeared before a White House summit on Friday, a motley crew of left-wing activists, evangelicals, and the various appendages of the libertarian Koch Network applauded his apparent endorsement of the bipartisan First STEP Act, co-authored by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), which is slated to win approval from the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon after it sailed through the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month.

Absent from the room were the ACLU and other George Soros-backed groups who reject the Collins-Jeffries effort for prison reform without substantial reductions in sentencing for federal offenders.

But keen observers should not be fooled by the First STEP Act. It isn’t half a loaf on so-called reform. It’s a dangerous precedent that will do little to nothing to reduce the risk of criminals reoffending and certainly will release violent criminals and narco-traffickers (many of them here illegally) back onto the streets.

First, it compels the attorney general and federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to develop and/or employ recidivism risk assessments of every prisoner in custody within six months of the bill’s enactment.

Such “risk assessments” are not proven effective and at least one study found that individuals can “guess” the odds of offender recidivism just as accurately as these algorithmic tools. Whatever system the BOP ends up employing, it likely would be subject to civil rights lawsuits over perceived racial, economic, or other bias.

Moreover, the tool must assess the nearly 200,000 federal prisoners within two years and periodically after that and then match them with hitherto non-existent but appropriately-tailored recidivism-reducing programs.

Too bad for the bill’s authors, most if not all recidivism reduction programs are junk or based on junk science.

But the good news for criminals (and bad news for the public) is tucked deep inside the bill. If a prisoner simply “participates” in a program (or vaguely named “productive activities”) for 30 days, regardless of actual quality or real impact on the prisoner’s risk, they earn 10 days off their sentence. This 3-to-1 deal is a bargain for a prisoner, who has a lot of time on his hands in the penitentiary. Even better, “low risk” offenders can earn one day for two days’ time credits for their time investment in these dubious “programs.”

While “inadmissible or deportable alien[s]” are deemed ineligible for earning time credits (i.e., early release), the bill has plenty to offer foreign guests of Uncle Sam. Fortunately for the roughly 40,000 non-U.S. citizens in federal prison, the bill still allows such prisoners to participate in the programs—at taxpayer expense and regardless of the offense. Mexican Drug Kingpin El Chapo can now learn to groom dogs behind bars, too! (No joke, federal prisons already pay for inmates to care for, handle, and groom man’s best friend.)

Further, an eleventh-hour change (made to buy hard Left support) stripped language that clearly codified the mandatory deportation of eligible aliens after completing their sentence.

The bill even makes the federal pen a much cushier place to do time. It mandates that BOP move prisoners to within 500 “driving miles” of their primary residence. Of course, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota (all big states with lots of space between cities) do not contain federal prisons—so good luck finding suitable facilities. (And, by the way: Anchorage, Alaska is 2,300 miles from the nearest federal site).

Fear not, BOP also would be required to better stock the commissary, give prisoners greater email access, and allot 30 minutes a day of phone or video-conferencing time—all to sweeten the deal for joining in prison programming. I’m confident the terribly understaffed federal prisons authority easily will be able to monitor a few hundred thousand drug traffickers and violent gang members’ private communications effectively. Luckily, federal prisoners have never ordered hits on the outside. (Oh, wait, never mind.)

The whole bill—though perhaps well intentioned—is a train wreck. While the ACLU, NAACP, and everyone’s favorite (crazy) Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) oppose the bill as half-loaf (lacking the “jailbreak” sentencing reform they deeply desire), for law-and-order conservatives the bill is more like poisoned ergot bread—tasty at first but chock full of delirium.

About John Weatherall

John Weatherall is the nom de cyber of a former Republican Capitol Hill staffer and public policy expert.

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