DOJ closing halfway houses is a terrible idea, Congress must stop it

DOJ closing halfway houses is a terrible idea, Congress must stop it

If you wanted to increase the chances that federal prisoners would commit new crimes when they are released, there are a few things you would do.

First, make lots of prisoners serve sentences that remove them from the community for far too long. Second, limit prisoners’ access to educational and job training opportunities and treatment for substance disorders and mental illness. Finally, as prisoners reach the end of their sentences, limit the time and services they are given to transition back to community.

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Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat House passes concealed carry gun bill Rosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee next week MORE’ Justice Department is doing all three of these things right now.

 

The attorney general obviously does not want crime to rise and prisoners to fail, but his department is implementing policies that raise the likelihood of both. 

Sessions has already guaranteed a hike in the duration of prison sentences by ordering federal prosecutors to seek lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms in more cases. As for in-prison programming, my organization, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, released a first-of-its-kind report in June highlighting the ways in which existing programming and treatment opportunities fall far short of what prisoners need to get back on their feet. To exacerbate this longstanding problem, the Sessions’ Justice Department has been shrinking the number of prison staff available to provide critical programs.

More recently, we learned that the Justice Department — specifically, the Bureau of Prisons — has decided to close (or not renew contracts with) 16 halfway houses around the country. Halfway house operators who remain are being required to offer fewer reentry services to the prisoners they house. By cutting both quantity and quality of halfway houses, the Bureau of Prisons is moving 180 degrees in the wrong direction. 

Instead, the Bureau of Prisons needs to increase halfway house capacity to meet the rising demand for transitional services. Some prisoners leave prison with nowhere to go, no one to go to, and nothing to do.

They need the basic things we take for granted, like government identification or clothes. They need to create a resume and learn how to interview for a job. (Imagine explaining a 5-, 10-, or even 20-year gap in your own career.) Many will need drug or alcohol treatment or cognitive behavioral therapy — especially if they never received those services while in prison.

Other prisoners might need fewer services but more time to adapt to a world that has changed dramatically since they left. Some have never seen a smart phone. More importantly, they might not have seen their children very much (or at all) in years. They need time to reestablish those crucial family bonds. Indeed, we know that finding a job and having family support are two important contributors to a successful reentry.

When we learned that Bureau of Prisons was reducing its halfway house capacity, we reached out to tens of thousands of federal prisoners and their families to ask how this change was affecting them. The responses were disturbing, frustrating, and sometimes heartbreaking.

Many said their time in a halfway house was being reduced by half. Many told us how, after serving 10 or more years in prison, they were finally within weeks of leaving for a local halfway house — only to get word that they would have to stay locked up for another few months. Others, we learned, are not only being forced to stay in prison longer, but have been reassigned to a halfway house far from home since the halfway house in their area had closed. Some will be no closer to their families and communities.

Some policymakers might be unmoved by the hardship these families are enduring, but everyone who cares about reducing crime and recidivism should recognize that reducing the quantity and quality of reentry services will undermine public safety. The Bureau of Prisons’ actions will increase the likelihood that some prisoners will not have enough time or get the transitional services they need for a successful reentry.

It’s time for Congress to exercise its oversight responsibility and ask the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons how they think these cuts to halfway houses and their services square with their anti-crime strategy. Many members of Congress in both parties have talked positively about the need for prison reform. This is their opportunity to walk the walk.

Kevin Ring is the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). He formerly served as executive director of the Republican Study Committee and as counsel to the Senate Judiciary’s Constitution, Federalism, and Property Rights Subcommittee under the leadership of future U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.