First Step Act Implementation, and the news in criminal justice this week

“It’s a long overdue change.” 

Nearly 3,100 people are scheduled to be released from federal prisons, halfway houses or home confinement this week as a result of the First Step Act’s “good time” credit changes. Justice Department officials also unveiled a new risk and needs assessment to help assign recidivism reduction programming. And in the New York Times, U.S. District Court Judge Robin Rosenberg wrote about the process of freeing Robert Clarence Potts III, who was sentenced to life in prison for drug and weapons charges. During his 20 years in prison, Potts overcame addiction, took courses in personal growth and responsible thinking, and studied software and the law. As a result of the First Step Act, Potts was able to seek a sentence reduction, and Rosenberg was able to order his release to a residential re-entry center. 

“It’s sort of a testament to the fact that we don’t need to rely on incarceration to live in a city that’s safe.” 

 According to new data from the New York City Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice, there were nearly 20% fewer jail admissions in fiscal 2019 than in 2018. City officials attributed the drop in jail admissions to decreased crime, the decriminalization of marijuana, and bail reform. The city’s jail incarceration rate is now the lowest since 1978, but there are still ongoing concerns: more people are being admitted to jail for violating state parole, and individuals on parole are staying in jail twice as long as those facing similar charges. Racial disparities in the city’s jail population have also persisted—86.3% of those in jail in 2018 were African-American or Hispanic. 

“Is it financially prudent and morally responsible to fund a co-equal branch of government on the backs of a few who are often the poorest and least fortunate members of our society?”

After a legislative audit found widespread irregularities in pretrial diversion programs and revenues, Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson asked prosecutors to report their income from diversion programs to the research arm of the state Supreme Court. The results showed variation across the state—a DWI dismissal, which isn’t offered in every jurisdiction, costs $2,100 in St. Tammany Parish and $1,000 in East Baton Rouge. And while some District Attorney’s offices showed little revenue from pretrial interventions, Rapides Parish brought in more than $2 million per year. Internal documents showed the Rapides Parish diversion fees paid for conferences, postage, office supplies, and nearly $90,000 in unitemized “fringe” expenditures.

“Technical violations account for almost 1 in 4 admissions to state prison and $2.8 billion in annual incarceration costs.”

An issue brief from the Pew Charitable Trusts examines reforms implemented through Justice Reinvestment Initiatives to address high rates of technical revocations for people on probation. The authors identified four categories of reform policies: tailoring supervision strategies toward behavioral change for high-risk supervisees, providing incentives for people on supervision, using administrative responses to violations, and capping or reducing jail or prison time for violations and limiting the use of incarceration for technical violations. They also highlighted model policies, including Utah’s earned credits toward discharge from parole or probation, and Georgia’s requirement of evidence-based practices to reduce recidivism.

“What we do is find athletes who are passionate about justice reform issues and work with them to help amplify their voices.”

The Justice Action Network partnered with University of Kentucky standout and Pittsburgh Steelers’ Rookie Benny Snell, Jr. to host system-impacted children at a football camp in Westerville, Ohio this week. Nearly 200 kids, aged 6-16, participated in the camp, which was held at Snell’s alma mater, Westerville Central High School. The Justice Action Network worked with groups, including the Boys and Girls Club, to identify kids whose families had been involved in the criminal justice system.