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.