The Justice Department on Wednesday unveiled a sweeping set of changes to the federal prison system — creating what it termed a “school district” for inmates, agreeing to pay for every inmate to get a birth certificate and state ID card, and mandating new standards for privately-run halfway houses.
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch lauded the changes as “critical” ways to help those leaving prison adjust to life in the outside world. But, like many criminal justice overhaul efforts, they might be short-lived under the Trump administration.
Lynch discussed the changes at an event about criminal justice reform at the White House Wednesday, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates ordered the overhaul of halfway houses in a memo to the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons. Reducing recidivism has been a priority of Lynch’s Justice Department, which paid several outside consultants to study Bureau of Prisons programs and halfway houses and recommend changes.
Lynch said she was “really excited because these are changes that we are making about how we handle reentry within the Bureau of Prisons that will live on past this administration, that are going to become part of the DNA of the Bureau of Prisons.”
But President-elect Donald Trump and his pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), have in past public statements indicated disagreement with some of the Justice Department’s efforts to reduce recidivism. Sessions, in an October 2015 congressional hearing on sentencing laws and the prison system, said he supported efforts to keep offenders from repeating their misdeeds, but he questioned the necessity of some programs.
“Do you think . . . nobody’s ever tried a program to reduce recidivism?” he asked. He added later: “My observation over the years of attempts to have education and other kind of character-building programs in prison before they’re released doesn’t seem to have much benefit.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Yates said she believed the incoming administration would nonetheless maintain the new changes. She said research had shown inmates participating in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who did not, and that would mean cost savings for the bureau of prisons.
“It’s smart from a public safety standpoint, and it’s less expensive,” Yates said.
Yates said that while the transition so far had been focused on the structure of the Justice Department, she would “talk to the transition team and to my successor” about maintaining the new prison initiatives. The Trump transition team did not return a message seeking comment.
The Justice Department said it planned to build a “semi-autonomous school district within the federal prison system” and would offer programs for literacy, high school diplomas and postsecondary education. The district will have its own organizational chart and even a superintendent, Amy Lopez, who worked as an educator in the Texas prison school system, the Justice Department said.
“Education is the key to successfully coming back home for so many people,” Lynch said. “The ability to get a job depends very often on things as simple as the ability to read, things as simple as the ability to actually get a license or certificate and things as simple as getting a G.E.D.”
Yates said the effort would not require any new money, but a shifting of other resources.
The Department also said it would pay for every federal inmate leaving the Bureau of Prisons to obtain a birth certificate and state-issued identification card, which makes it possible for them to secure employment and housing, register for school and open bank accounts. Lynch had earlier this year written to the states to ask for their assistance in getting recently released inmates IDs.
“One of the biggest stumbling blocks to re-entering life can be identification,” she said Wednesday. “It also impacts the ability, not just for transportation, to enter into a building to get a job, to get a student loan.”
Yates said Wednesday the effort would cost between $1 million and $1.5 million initially, but it would save the Bureau of Prisons $19 million a year. That is because inmates would be able to more quickly find a job and housing, which would let the prison system more quickly transfer them to home confinement, Yates said.
Yates also directed the Bureau of Prisons to adopt “clear, uniform standards” for halfway house providers, and to collect and publish data measuring performance. Until now, Yates wrote, the Bureau of Prisons had not required halfway houses to provide the same base level of standards — instead employing a patchwork of requirements based on individual contracts.
“While some of them are working very hard and are in fact doing a good job, it has not been up to what we want,” Lynch said.
Since 1981, federal halfway houses have been fully privatized — with the government relying on for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations to manage them. Yates wrote the Department had “serious reservations about outsourcing the bureau’s core correctional and rehabilitative services to private companies,” but the Bureau of Prisons lacked the “capacity” to own and operate its own halfway houses.
Earlier this year, Yates directed the Bureau of Prisons to work to end its use of private prisons to house federal inmates.
Trump seems to have a different view of that debate. “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better,” he said on MSNBC earlier this year.
Yates declined to comment on whether she thought the transition away from private prisons would survive the new administration. A Justice Department official said the Bureau of Prisons is on track to cut its use of the facilities by 50 percent by spring.