News

3 Months Into New Criminal Justice Law, Success For Some And Snafus For Others

President Trump at the signing ceremony for the First Step Act last December. The criminal justice overhaul has led to the early release of some 500 federal prisoners but has also encountered missed deadlines and a lack of funding.
President Trump at the signing ceremony for the First Step Act last December. The criminal justice overhaul has led to the early release of some 500 federal prisoners but has also encountered missed deadlines and a lack of funding.
Credit Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images

After spending 15 years in prison for a drug offense, Randy Rader had almost lost hope that he might get out of prison before his release date in 2023.

If Rader’s conviction for 5 grams of crack cocaine — his third drug offense — had happened after 2010, he would have received a much shorter sentence. But the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which cut down on the disparity between penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, did not apply to those already serving time.

The First Step Act, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by Congress in December, changed that, making the 2010 statute retroactive.

“They just came and told me, ‘You’re leaving,’ ” Rader said. “That was on a Monday. On a Friday, they let me go.”

That was just a little more than a week ago. Now back home in Michigan with his mother, Rader is overjoyed to be free, though he’s facing some challenges.

His mother lives on a fixed income, and money is tight. He’s been rejected for food stamps because of his drug convictions, and he’s struggling to even get an ID. His mom set up a GoFundMe page, and they’re reaching out to groups that might be able to help Rader get back on his feet.

“I got like $30 to my name, period, and I don’t have nothing else, no clothes, no nothing,” he said. “I just keep telling myself: Stay focused, even if something blocks my way. Don’t worry about it. We’re going to figure it out another way.”

Rader’s struggles get at the heart of another key component of what the First Step Act is supposed to begin to address: preparing prisoners for life after incarceration so they don’t return to confinement.

Uneven implementation of the law

The White House will be holding a summit Monday evening celebrating the law, which was hailed by President Trump in his State of the Union address this year as proof that the U.S. “believes in redemption.”

Activists who backed passage of the law say that certain parts of the act are working as intended, but other parts seem to be facing delays and uncertainty.

“It’s been a mixed bag,” said Mark Holden, general counsel to Koch Industries, which has been a big supporter of the statute.

More than 500 inmates have been released thanks to the law so far.

Some have been freed based on the retroactive crack cocaine sentencing changes. Others have gotten out due to changes made to the way prisoners can petition for “compassionate release,” which allows sentence reductions for severely ill inmates.

“There have been a number of people who have already benefited from the statutory reforms,” Holden said. “That is a big deal, people getting out, getting back home.”

Still, Holden and others raised concerns about implementation of key provisions in the law that call for development of rehabilitation and training programs for prisoners aimed at reducing recidivism.

These programs were never expected to be in place for the prisoners such as Rader released in the first months after passage of the law, but the goal is that they will eventually be widely available to the federal prison population.

As a part of the requirement for the expanded programs, the law mandated development of a risk and needs assessment tool that would be used to assess each inmate and determine what types of programs they could participate in and the incentives they could receive.

The tool is critical to imposing the new network of programming, but the Justice Department already has missed one deadline for development.

The attorney general must consult with an outside review committee about how to set up the risk assessment tool. This committee envisioned by the law was supposed to be stood up 30 days after First Step’s enactment, but it has not yet been created.

With the committee not yet in place, there are questions about whether the government will meet the July deadline for developing the system.

Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says there hasn’t been much clarity from the administration on the status of these measures.

“All the timelines were ambitious, so it’s not surprising that they haven’t met them all,” Ring said. “It’s just it seems to be a bit of a black box. We don’t know what’s taking so long.”

Complicating matters further, Congress passed the law but has not appropriated funds for the initiative.

And the president’s budget released earlier this year did not clearly request the $75 million that is needed to support the new criminal justice overhaul.

Despite that, a senior administration official said Trump is committed to working with Congress to fully fund and implement the law.

“We are hoping to get the independent review council in place as soon as possible,” the official said.

The official blamed the 34-day government shutdown for contributing to delays but said there would not be a significant holdup.

Another official said the Justice Department is using resources it has on hand to work on the risk assessment tool internally, in the absence of the committee, and expects to meet the July deadline.

But the official acknowledged that Congress will need to provide money or approve shifting funds around in order for the agency to move ahead with the panel and other aspects of the law.

Ensuring that the money is available will be crucial to the effectiveness of the First Step Act, said Nancy La Vigne, head of justice policy at the Urban Institute.

“We always recognized that without proper funding, the First Step Act is really nothing more than window dressing,” La Vigne said.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.