January 15, 2020 / 11:36 PM / 3 days ago

Courts approved more than 2,400 reduced sentences under new law - Justice Department

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than 2,400 federal inmates have won court approval for reduced prison sentences while another 124 seriously ill prisoners have been approved for early compassionate release under a criminal justice law passed in late 2018, the U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday.

The prison release statistics were provided by the Justice Department as part of an update on implementation of the First Step Act, a law that won broad bipartisan support in Congress.

Signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2018, the First Step Act aims to reduce the sentences of low-level offenders and bolster programs to help reduce high rates of recidivism.

The law allows for inmates serving time for selling crack cocaine to petition a judge to reduce their sentence. That provision was a response to long-standing criticism over racial disparities in sentencing that saw White people convicted of powder cocaine offenses being treated more leniently than African-Americans caught with crack.

The Justice Department said there have been 2,471 court orders for reduced sentences since the law took effect.

There have also been more than 3,100 inmates released early for good behavior, while early compassionate releases for terminally ill inmates jumped from 34 in 2018 to 124 after the law took effect.

The department also said it was making tweaks to its risk assessment tool, which the law required the Bureau of Prisons to develop and use to rate and predict each inmates’ risk of repeat offenses. The high-stakes tool will impact how long each inmate may face behind bars, based on their risk scores.

The risk assessment tool has been the subject of some controversy, after the Justice Department last spring tapped the conservative-leaning think tank the Hudson Institute to develop it. Federal public defenders and some criminal justice reform advocates have complained that the department has released very limited information about the tool and how it is being used.

Without more transparency around its methodology, advocates say they fear it may lead to racial and gender disparities in how inmates are rated. Based on some of that feedback, the department said it had made some adjustments.

Inimai Chettiar, the legislative director at the Justice Action Network, said the tweaks were “minor” and that she still has concerns the law is not being fully implemented.

She pointed to a July 2019 Reuters article, which found that federal prosecutors in some cases have fought back against some petitions for reduced sentences.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Bill Berkrot

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