Monday, October 13, 2008

The Second Chance Act of 2007

Recently a law was enacted to help offenders make a transition from Federal Prison to the regular honest working world. This law has become known as the Second Chance Act. This law was eagerly awaited by inmates and their families. It was also the subject of many rumors and much misinformation. (story)

In essence, the new law does little and will provide benefits to only a few inmates. The most significant and widespread benefit from this law has been a change in the BOP's policy regarding half-way house time. Prior to this new law, the BOP permitted only a certain amount of half-way house time for inmates -- up to 6 months or 10% of the sentence, whichever was less. Thus, only those inmates serving 60 months or more were permitted 6 months half-way house time.

The exception to this rule was for those inmates who completed the RDAP program. They were permitted up to 6 months half-way house time regardless of the length of their sentence. Now, all inmates may be considered for up to 6 months half-way house time. This alteration in the BOP's policy affects only non-RDAP inmates who are serving less than 60 months.

With respect to the other aspects of the bill, specifically the pilot program to consider early release for elderly inmates and additional assistance beyond half-way house programs, the BOP must publish regulations, wait for comments on them and then proceed. As far as I know, they have not published relevant regulations. Consequently, because the rule-making process may take over 6 months, it may be some time before the limited benefits of the Second Chance Act are available.

The early release provision of the Second Chance Act applies to a very limited group. According to its terms, only offenders over age 65 who have served 10 years or 75% of their time and who did not commit a violent or sex crime can be released early. This applies, therefore, to approximately 650 of the 200,000 federal prisoners. The early release program is to begin on October 1 2008.

The Act also provides that the BOP may, but is not required to, allow up to 1 year of half-way house time. However, this provision of the Act has met with a great deal of skepticism. For example, at a Sentencing Commission symposium held in Washington on July 15, 2008, BOP Director Harley Lappin admitted that there would not be a substantial move to increase half-way house time beyond 6 months. Director Lappin relied upon research studies to support the conclusion that more than six months in a half-way house is not productive for most inmates.

The economics are also not encouraging for anyone hoping to spend more than 6 months at a half-way house. It is cheaper to house inmates in prison than in a half-way house. The average daily cost to house an inmate in a half-way house is $64. The average daily cost to house an inmate in a low-security prison is $48.

There was also a different bill with a similar name. The Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2007 was designed to amend the federal criminal code to permit expungement of records of certain nonviolent criminal offenses. Although this would be beneficial to anyone convicted of a federal crime, it has not been passed into law. Currently, unlike most state felons, federal felons cannot expunge their conviction. Still, expungement provides only the marginal benefit of making it more difficult for someone to find out the existence of a conviction. It does not make the conviction go away.

Pennsylvania House of Representatives passes expungement bill

Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Solobay, D-Washington, has sponsored a Pennsylvania House bill, that could speed up the expungement process in the commonwealth.

He said it could also take some of the load off the parole board.

Solobay said the bill would allow someone who committed a summary offense but has not committed any other crimes in a five-year period to petition the court to have his or her record expunged at the local level rather than having to go through the state.

The reason for the original bill, Solobay said, is that there is "such a backlog of folks waiting to get their records cleared."

He said it takes three to four years to have a record expunged and added many people need to have their records cleared for background checks.

"With many people, we're finding folks in their middle age with something that may have occurred in college and that's holding them back from promotions or from acquiring a job in the first place," he said. "Some people are actually losing jobs because they have to have a background check done and they can't hold a job with a record."

The bill passed almost unanimously, 198-1, Sept. 23 by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Solobay said the House bill also included some misdemeanors.

He said the period would be seven years for someone who has committed a third-degree misdemeanor and 10 years for someone who has committed a second-degree misdemeanor, Solobay said.

Solobay said he hopes the Senate will pass the bill Wednesday.

It it passes on Wednesday, the House can sign it and "get it to the governor's desk" before session is over, he said.

Solobay said other than "thinning out" the number of people waiting to have their record expunged, the bill would also prevent major criminals from "slipping through the cracks" in the expungement process.

"It's only human nature that you may not put the same time and effort into something as you would if you had a small number," he said.

Solobay said one concern addressed in the House bill was that some things graded as misdemeanors in the past are now graded as summaries.

"There could be someone who had something as basic as a shoplifting charge that was a misdemeanor and is now just a summary offense," he said. "One person could get it expunged quickly through this process, and the other would have to go through the old process."

He said the misdemeanors that were included in the House bill are "non-violent."