An area legislator is looking to expand a federal prison release program that has come under recent scrutiny into the state prison system.
The First Step Act, enacted on Dec. 21, 2018, features correctional and sentencing reform and modifies an early release pilot program to allow elderly and terminally ill prisoners into home confinement or a residential reentry center to serve the remainder of their sentence.
Inmates eligible for this pilot program, also known as the elder offender program, must be at least 60 years old; are not serving a life sentence or have been convicted of a crime of violence, sex offense, terrorism or espionage. Inmates must have already served two-thirds of their prison sentence, been determined by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to not have a “history of violence,” not have escaped or attempted to escape, been determined by the BOP to have a “substantial net reduction of costs to the federal government” as a result of home confinement; and have been determined by the BOP to not be a substantial risk to the public.
Between Dec. 21, 2018, and Sept. 30, 2020, 7,251 inmates were released from federal prison as a result of the First Step Act, according to the Attorney General’s First Step Act annual report. Of those inmates, 88.7% did not recidivate.
“Very ill people in prison are among the most expensive to incarcerate, but pose little to no danger to the public – meaning taxpayers get very little bang for their public safety buck by keeping them in prison,” Kail said.
Kail said the proposed bill to expand the program into Pennsylvania’s state prisons has bipartisan support, as well as support from civil liberties groups and subject matter experts, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).
The First Step Act has been the subject of previous stories by The Times on Wanda Solomon of Beaver Falls, who was released from federal imprisonment in November 2019 under the program but was returned to custody a short time later because of possible flaws in the system. She was re-released this April after successfully appealing her situation.
Since Solomon’s case was publicized, the federal Bureau of Prisons has made modifications to the program to make it clearer when inmates would qualify and make it easier for them to apply, but prison reform advocates are continuing to push for improvements.
“We need to humanize our systems because if we rely solely on what is described, imagine how many families are going to be impacted by a loved one getting out, and then the BOP saying, ‘Oh, this popped up so we have to send you back,'” said Professor Terrence Coffie, an adjunct lecturer at New York University and founder of the Social Justice Network who served time in prison in the 1990s for possession with intent to sell. He now teaches college courses about criminal justice, social work and race. “… We need more accountability in this space.”