Disgraceful delays

Sunday, December 12, 2010; 8:04 PM

THE SCOURGE of sexual violence behind bars led in 2003 to the creation of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which in 2009 recommended sensible, much-needed reforms. The law that created the commission required the attorney general to act within one year.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. blew the June 2010 deadline. Now, a labyrinthine bureaucratic process will probably ensure that another year will pass without results.

Those who break the law must be held accountable, but sexual violence behind bars must never be tolerated. Some 88,500 imprisoned adults were sexually abused in the past year, according to a recent study by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Add to this 3,200 juveniles in detention who were subjected to sexual abuse during 2008 and 2009. As Mr. Holder has said, such abuse "is a crime, one that can have severe consequences for victims, for the security of our prison facilities and for the safety of our communities, to which nearly all incarcerated persons will eventually return."

New regulations cannot be adopted overnight, and some delays are baked into the regulatory system to ensure a thorough, transparent and inclusive process. The Justice Department's unnecessary duplication of many aspects of the commission's work - re-interviewing those whose views were already reflected in the report, for instance - put off progress for months. It also chose a particularly cumbersome bureaucratic path that slowed movement. Meanwhile, corrections officials dissatisfied with some of the commission's findings pressured the Justice Department to reconsider oversight and audit provisions they argued were onerous.

Last month, the Justice Department sent proposed rules to the Office of Management and Budget, which has up to 90 days for review. Another round of public comment follows, plus unlimited time for Justice Department review. States have a year to put the changes in place.

The Justice Department and OMB should move swiftly - ahead of deadlines, if at all possible. A lack of urgency all but ensures barbaric treatment of more inmates.

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