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Reform Groups Seek More First Step Act Funding

More funds are urgently needed to implement the new First Step Act that Congress passed late last year to increase rehabilitation and release of federal prisoners, says a coalition of 14 criminal justice reform organizations representing views across the ideological spectrum.

The groups sent a letter this week to leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which next week will consider the Department of Justice (DOJ) budget for the federal fiscal year that begins on October 1.

Reformers want DOJ’s Bureau of Prisons to get the full $75 million annual appropriation that was authorized in the law.

In its initial budget request to Congress, DOJ sought far less money for the First Step Act and so far has not formally asked congressional appropriators to raise the total, says Inimai Chettiar of the Justice Action Network, one of the groups that is pressuring for a higher allocation.

The other organizations joining in the request are the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, Americans for Prosperity, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Due Process Institute, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), FreedomWorks, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Prison Fellowship, the R Street Institute, and The Sentencing Project.

“We cannot leave it to the Department of Justice to reallocate existing funds to implement these reforms — spreading thin the already limited
resources within the Bureau of Prisons,” the groups told Sens. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), the chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee overseeing DOJ spending.

“The success of these programs will lead to cost-savings in the long run, but in order to achieve these goals we cannot afford to underfund this important initiative.”

In a separate letter, the Justice Action Network expressed concerns about a tool announced this summer by the Justice Department to assess the readiness of federal prisoners for release under the First Step Act. The tool is called PATTERN, for “Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risks and Needs.”

The Justice Action Network notes that PATTERN includes a number of “static and dynamic risk factors” to help officials assess a prisoner’s risk of recidivism

The group says that among measures included in the analyis, only a prisoner’s education level (GED or high school degree) can be considered a “dynamic” risk factor.

Other measures like infraction convictions while incarcerated, completed technical or vocational courses, or drug treatment are “static” because PATTERN does not examine whether additional programming or treatment is needed but rather whether or not the measure in question has been completed, which cannot be changed, the group says.

Research shows the use of dynamic factors is integral to ensuring individuals are accurately assessed over time, says the Justice Action Network. It calls for more “dynamic” factors to be incorporated into PATTERN to assess and effectively monitor changes in prisoners’ risks and needs throughout their sentences.

The group seeks more work on the PATTERN program, saying that it has not been tested for predictive bias. “If it is not properly developed, the system could result in biases that disproportionately discriminate against specific groups of people, especially on the basis of race, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, or gender,” says the group.

The letter was addressed to Attorney General William Barr, Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, Barr’s appointee to head the Bureau of Prisons, and David Muhlhausen, director of the National Institute of Justice, which is overseeing the assessment tool.