WIUM Tristates Public Radio

3 Months Into New Criminal Justice Law, Success For Some And Snafus For Others

Apr 1, 2019
Originally published on April 1, 2019 10:14 am

After spending 15 years in prison for a drug offense, Randy Rader had almost lost hope that he might get out of prison before his release date in 2023.

If Rader's conviction for 5 grams of crack cocaine — his third drug offense — had happened after 2010, he would have received a much shorter sentence. But the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which cut down on the disparity between penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, did not apply to those already serving time.

The First Step Act, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by Congress in December, changed that, making the 2010 statute retroactive.

"They just came and told me, 'You're leaving,' " Rader said. "That was on a Monday. On a Friday, they let me go."

That was just a little more than a week ago. Now back home in Michigan with his mother, Rader is overjoyed to be free, though he's facing some challenges.

His mother lives on a fixed income, and money is tight. He's been rejected for food stamps because of his drug convictions, and he's struggling to even get an ID. His mom set up a GoFundMe page, and they're reaching out to groups that might be able to help Rader get back on his feet.

"I got like $30 to my name, period, and I don't have nothing else, no clothes, no nothing," he said. "I just keep telling myself: Stay focused, even if something blocks my way. Don't worry about it. We're going to figure it out another way."

Rader's struggles get at the heart of another key component of what the First Step Act is supposed to begin to address: preparing prisoners for life after incarceration so they don't return to confinement.

Uneven implementation of the law

The White House will be holding a summit Monday evening celebrating the law, which was hailed by President Trump in his State of the Union address this year as proof that the U.S. "believes in redemption."

Activists who backed passage of the law say that certain parts of the act are working as intended, but other parts seem to be facing delays and uncertainty.

"It's been a mixed bag," said Mark Holden, general counsel to Koch Industries, which has been a big supporter of the statute.

More than 500 inmates have been released thanks to the law so far.

Some have been freed based on the retroactive crack cocaine sentencing changes. Others have gotten out due to changes made to the way prisoners can petition for "compassionate release," which allows sentence reductions for severely ill inmates.

"There have been a number of people who have already benefited from the statutory reforms," Holden said. "That is a big deal, people getting out, getting back home."

Still, Holden and others raised concerns about implementation of key provisions in the law that call for development of rehabilitation and training programs for prisoners aimed at reducing recidivism.

These programs were never expected to be in place for the prisoners such as Rader released in the first months after passage of the law, but the goal is that they will eventually be widely available to the federal prison population.

As a part of the requirement for the expanded programs, the law mandated development of a risk and needs assessment tool that would be used to assess each inmate and determine what types of programs they could participate in and the incentives they could receive.

The tool is critical to imposing the new network of programming, but the Justice Department already has missed one deadline for development.

The attorney general must consult with an outside review committee about how to set up the risk assessment tool. This committee envisioned by the law was supposed to be stood up 30 days after First Step's enactment, but it has not yet been created.

With the committee not yet in place, there are questions about whether the government will meet the July deadline for developing the system.

Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says there hasn't been much clarity from the administration on the status of these measures.

"All the timelines were ambitious, so it's not surprising that they haven't met them all," Ring said. "It's just it seems to be a bit of a black box. We don't know what's taking so long."

Complicating matters further, Congress passed the law but has not appropriated funds for the initiative.

And the president's budget released earlier this year did not clearly request the $75 million that is needed to support the new criminal justice overhaul.

Despite that, a senior administration official said Trump is committed to working with Congress to fully fund and implement the law.

"We are hoping to get the independent review council in place as soon as possible," the official said.

The official blamed the 34-day government shutdown for contributing to delays but said there would not be a significant holdup.

Another official said the Justice Department is using resources it has on hand to work on the risk assessment tool internally, in the absence of the committee, and expects to meet the July deadline.

But the official acknowledged that Congress will need to provide money or approve shifting funds around in order for the agency to move ahead with the panel and other aspects of the law.

Ensuring that the money is available will be crucial to the effectiveness of the First Step Act, said Nancy La Vigne, head of justice policy at the Urban Institute.

"We always recognized that without proper funding, the First Step Act is really nothing more than window dressing," La Vigne said.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There have not been a lot of bipartisan successes during the Trump administration, which is why it was such a big deal when the president signed the so-called First Step Act into law three months ago. It was an effort supported by Republicans and Democrats to reduce the population in federal prisons and to help those getting out readjust to life on the outside so they don't end up going back in. Today, President Trump is meeting federal inmates who were freed under that law. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe has been tracking how the First Step Act has been implemented, and she joins us now. Hi, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So there are apparently some issues with how this law has taken effect. What have you found?

RASCOE: So for supporters of this law, there has been a big accomplishment, and that's that more than 500 inmates have been released thanks to sentencing changes; that's a portion of the law that activists and supporters say is working out reasonably as intended, but there are some concerns. The Justice Department is supposed to develop programs focused on training, rehabilitation and other prisoner needs. This is key because most prisoners will be getting out at some point, and this is the prep work for that.

But there's a problem - an outside committee that's supposed to oversee development of this risk assessment tool, required by law to get these programs off the ground, hasn't even been set up yet; that deadline passed two months ago. And there's another deadline - yeah - this risk assessment is supposed to be completed by July. So there's worry they might miss that deadline since they haven't even gotten the committee set up. Then there's also the issue of funding. Some sources have told me that there are - that they are hearing that there might not be enough money to develop the tool or the new program.

MARTIN: That would be a problem. So does the administration - is the administration acknowledging these issues?

RASCOE: Well, so I talked to some administration officials who said President Trump is committed to working with Congress to fully fund and implement the law. As far as that outside committee, they said they are hoping to get the group in place as soon as possible. But in the meantime, the Justice Department is working internally to develop the risk assessment tool to attempt to meet that July deadline.

MARTIN: So I understand you've had a chance to talk to someone who was recently released under the First Step Act, right?

RASCOE: Yes. So I talked to Randy Rader of Eastpointe, Mich., outside Detroit. Rader was in prison for 15 years for a crack cocaine offense, his third offense, and he still had more years to serve, but he was released just a little over a week ago under a provision of the First Step Act that made a 2010 law that lowered the disparity between crack cocaine penalties and powder cocaine penalties retroactive. Now he's home, reunited with his mom, Debbie (ph), and here's a little of what he had to say.

RANDY RADER: I mean, you know, I love it. I love being - it's free. You know, I can go out. I can walk to the store. I don't have to wait until somebody opens my door and tells me I can go to the chow line; I can go up to the refrigerator and grab me something to eat, you know.

MARTIN: Just the basics, yeah.

RASCOE: So - yeah. Those are things that people take for granted. And - but there have been some practical challenges for him - money is tight because his mom's on a fixed income, he was denied food stamps because of his prior convictions, and he's having a hard time getting ID.

RADER: I just keep telling myself, stay focused, stay focused. Even if something blocks my way, that's what I try to do. I just say, stay focused. Don't worry about it. We're going to figure it out another way.

RASCOE: So there's no doubt that, despite those difficulties, Rader is just glad to no longer be incarcerated. But the struggles that he's facing aren't unique, and that's what the First Step Act is ultimately supposed to address - how do you get prisoners ready for life when they're no longer behind bars? That's why there's concern about these new programs being developed.

MARTIN: Right. And so just real quick - where are you going to be looking to determine if these issues get fixed?

RASCOE: Congress will have to give the - appropriate the money. So that's the question; will it be the $75 million asked for by the law?

MARTIN: NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.