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What To Take From The Attorney General’s Announced Halfway House Policy Changes

On Monday, via a video message posted on the Department of Justice’s Web site, Attorney General Holder announced changes to the Bureau of Prisons’ halfway house practices. As set forth in the accompanying press release:

Among the most significant changes Holder announced is the requirement for standardized Cognitive Behavioral Programming (CBP) to be offered at all federal halfway houses. This treatment will address behavior that places formerly incarcerated individuals at higher risk of recidivism. As part of this treatment requirement, BOP is setting guidelines for instructor qualifications, class size and length, and training for all staff at the halfway houses.

Several other modifications are being made to the standard contracts that apply to federal halfway houses in order to provide greater support to returning citizens. Examples include requiring halfway houses to provide public transportation vouchers or transportation assistance to help residents secure employment, requiring all federal halfway houses to allow residents to have cell phones to facilitate communication with potential employers and family, and improving and expanding home confinement by increasing the use of GPS monitoring.

These are positive developments that may no doubt aid prisoners transitioning back into society. Yet, the changes beg several questions.

• Given the recognized benefit of cognitive behavioral therapy, why limit its standardized use to prisoners on the cusp of release from custody? Indeed, where Bureau policy uses halfway house placement to incentivize positive institutional adjustment, why not provide high risk offenders tools to help conform their conduct to controlling norms at the earliest opportunity and, in so doing, increase the probability of their transitioning into society via halfway houses (as opposed to be released directly to the street)?

• Why is public transportation assistance just now being identified as something with which halfway house operators should assist prisoners?

• Given (a) that halfway houses are places of imprisonment and (b) that possession of a cell phone in prison is illegal (as is providing such contraband to a federal prisoner), does the Department of Justice intend not to enforce that aspect of a law that went into effect just three years ago?

• How will the BOP effect greater use of GPS monitoring when, in certain districts, Probation Offices exercise supervisory control over federal prisoners on home confinement? Also, who is to cover the cost of the added level of electronic supervision: the halfway house operator or the prisoner?

None of the foregoing is intended to be overly critical. If anything, the Attorney General’s push to make greater and better use of community-based placement options gives effect to his and other Justice Department officials’ recent comments regarding the need to think anew about imprisonment both in terms of efficacy and cost. Hopefully these changes signal another step in the effort to reduce the federal prison population and to have the federal criminal justice follow its state counterparts in becoming smarter on crime. At the same time, perhaps there needs to be broader dialogue that includes a greater number of stakeholders so as to bring about the most constructive change possible.

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