United States

U.S. Justice Dept clashes with inmates over credits to shave prison time

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The seal of the United States Department of Justice is seen on the building exterior of the United States Attorney's Office of the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., August 17, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

WASHINGTON, Aug 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department asked a judge on Tuesday to deny a bid by four low-level federal inmates to qualify for early release under a new criminal justice reform law that allows shortened prison terms through recidivism-reduction programs.

In the U.S. District Court in Oregon, federal prosecutors said no program or activity the inmates took part in qualify for earned time credits.

The inmates' public defender and some lawmakers have said the Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) criteria are too strict.

The rift could increase pressure on the Justice Department, which is under fire from civil rights advocates for its inaction to prevent BOP from sending thousands of federal inmates back to prison once the pandemic emergency is lifted.

At issue is a provision from the 2018 First Step Act, which aims to ease harsh sentencing for non-violent offenders and reduce recidivism. The BOP may award 10 or 15 days' credit for every 30 days of participation in recidivism-reduction or activities such as academic classes or certain prison jobs.

In a January 2020 proposal, the BOP defined a day of participation as 8 hours and limited the menu of qualifying programs.

"The math speaks for itself," federal defenders wrote in a January 2021 letter to BOP. "It would take 219 weeks, or over 4 years to earn a full year of credit under the BOP's proposed rule."

In Tuesday's case, lead plaintiff Adrian Cazares is serving a 71-month sentence for cocaine importation. He has held prison jobs such as a painter and an HVAC worker, and completed courses such as anger management, entrepreneurship, and a residential drug abuse program.

None of those are on the BOP's approved list, prosecutors said.

"If HVAC work doesn't qualify, what kinds of jobs do?" asked Magistrate Judge John Acosta, noting the program's goal of reducing recidivism and facilitating reintegration into society.

"The ones that are identified by the Bureau of Prisons," federal prosecutor Jared Hager replied, noting the inmates have "not shown entitlement to any credit."

The list of qualifying programs and activities will be updated by Attorney General Merrick Garland, he added.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Richard Chang

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