Bill to reduce prison recidivism rates advances in House

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The House Judiciary Committee approved a criminal justice reform bill Thursday that aims to strengthen public safety, enhance prison security and reduce recidivism rates.

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The Corrections and Recidivism Reduction Act, introduced by Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzOvernight Energy: Obama signs chemical safety reform into law House caucus to focus on business in Latin America Freedom Caucus urges vote on impeaching IRS commissioner MORE (R-Utah), would force the Bureau of Prisons to offer rehabilitation programs and allow inmates to earn time toward an alternative custody arrangement — such as a halfway house or home confinement. Certain inmates like those convicted of dangerous sexual offenses and murder, however, would not be eligible for the alternative custody program.

Chaffetz said everyone benefits if inmates gain marketable skills rather than criminal insights during their sentence.

“More than 95 percent of people that go to prison will be released,” he said. “Our collective goal should be to lower the recidivism rates and prepare inmates to integrate back into our communities.”

The legislation also aims to improve prison safety by allowing the Bureau of Prisons director to issue pepper spray to employees in a prison above the medium security level. It also requires the director to provide officers with de-escalation training, as well as a secure storage area outside the prison to store firearms.

In addition to prohibiting pregnant inmates from being put in restraints, the bill extends the provision in the Second Chance Act that allows elderly prisoners to apply for compassionate release and requires the bureau to create a pilot youth mentorship program and a program where inmates can learn how to train rescue dogs to be therapy dogs.

The bill prohibits the bureau from monitoring the contents of electronic communications between a prisoner and his or her attorney unless the bureau obtains a court order.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said the legislation has some promises, but it’s concerned will the requirement for the bureau to implement a post-sentencing risk assessment system to determine an inmate’s risk of committing more crimes when released.

In a statement, Nancy Zirkin, the group's executive vice president, said the use of risk assessments could compound the racial disparities that already exist in the federal system because they include factors that have no bearing on someone’s likelihood to commit a crime, like the neighborhood they live in or whether family members have a criminal history.

“This bill also leaves out key parts of the Senate’s reform package, including fairer sentences for juveniles sentenced to life without parole and a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles, the compassionate release of sick individuals and the ability for people who have reformed their lives to have records expunged or sealed," she said.