Inmates Qualify for Federal Drug Program Perk

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2008

District inmates held in federal prisons are now eligible to have a year shaved off their sentences for completing an intensive drug-treatment program.

Inmates, their families and advocacy groups had complained that D.C. inmates were the only federal prisoners not to have sentences reduced after completing the 500-hour program, largely because of their unique status -- the District is the only jurisdiction in the country in which all felons are sent to federal lockups.

The D.C. Council tried to end the inequity when it passed legislation in 2005 that brought city law into compliance with federal law, in effect making D.C. inmates eligible for the provision. But federal rules had to be rewritten and approvals were needed at several levels of government.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who announced the change this week, had pressed for it.

"They just weren't paying attention," she said, referring to the time that passed since the District modified its law. "Why should we be a priority?"

The District transferred its prisoners to federal control after Congress agreed to take over the costs. About 7,000 D.C. inmates are being held in 75 institutions nationwide.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons runs the 500-hour residential drug-treatment program at many facilities.

"They have always been permitted to be enrolled," said Traci Billingsley, a bureau spokeswoman. "Now they can get the time off."

The move is one of the first concrete changes since Norton scheduled a congressional hearing in October. She said inmates from the District were not getting the same treatment as other prisoners in federal facilities, and she was particularly critical of the privately operated Rivers Correctional Institution in North Carolina. Federal prison officials have acknowledged that Rivers had substandard drug-treatment and vocational training programs compared with other federally run facilities.

Drug treatment is of particular concern. Two-thirds of D.C. residents released from prison have abused drugs, according to studies. Bureau officials say that about 34 percent of federal inmates need residential substance-abuse treatment, and most of them volunteer for and receive such treatment while in prison.

The treatment program has been credited with reducing recidivism.

"We're dealing with people who got virtually nothing while out in the open," Norton said. "At least we can send them out clean. That gives them a leg up in finding a job."

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