Releasing federal inmates early requires care

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Good intentions are only the starting place for good legislation.

Congress is currently considering the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2014, in which an estimated 34,000 federal prisoners could see a substantial reduction in their sentences. According to a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the bill would double the time off a sentence an inmate can earn for behaving and participating in certain programs.

The legislation is careful to exclude the worst inmates — sex offenders, violent-crime offenders, repeat offenders, organized-crime members and major fraud convicts. That leaves nonviolent, first-time offenders who have passed an assessment showing they are less likely to reoffend.

So far so good.

According to the December 2012 Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, the annual costs per federal inmate are $21,006 for minimum security, $25,378 for low security and $26,247 for medium security. The annual cost of supervision by probation officers in the community is about $3,433 per offender.

So, on the surface, this legislation also makes financial sense.

Where things could get sticky is the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services recently absorbed an 8 percent budget reduction due to sequestration. Belinda Ashley, chief U.S. probation officer for Western Pennsylvania, said case-loads there are already at 60 to 65 for released convicts. The recommended level is around 45 cases.

“The truth is, we’re going to get these guys, and I’ve got to gear up,” Ashley said. “But it costs money.”

Fortunately, according to a spokesman for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who is one of the bill’s prime sponsors, the Bureau of Prisons will be expected to foot the bill for most of the time inmates are on probation.

This is a change from the current law, and a wise change. With the inmates no longer under lock and key, the Bureau of Prisons will experience some savings. Putting that money into the probation system is the right thing to do.

But the devil is always in the details. The bill instructs the two agencies to reach an agreement on how to handle home confinement and community supervision, but it does not go into specifics.

Again, on the surface this makes sense. The agencies are the ones with the most knowledge of how to go about this.

But Congress cannot pass this, claim victory and never look back. It is incumbent on legislators to make sure a deal is reached and that it works. Allowing about one-sixth of the federal prison population to re-enter society isn’t something you can just legislate and then hope everything goes according to plan. The adage “Trust but verify” is apropos in this situation.

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