Literacy, Education and Rehabilitation Act

 In the past month much has come about through legislative action. The crack cocaine law has been passed giving hope to thousands and reducing the previous disparity, the courts have ruled against the overcrowding in California prisons yet again, and Representative Bobby Scott (D-Va) has introduced House Resolution 2343, a resolution which could impact the release dates of thousands upon thousands of federal prisoners. I'd almost say that we have come to a legislative perfect storm. The forces of economic instability, common sense, and action have merged to create...a very hopeful place, if you are a prisoner in America.

According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), "On June 23, Representative Bobby Scott (D-Va) introduced H.R. 2343, the Literacy, Education, and Rehabilitation Act (LERA). LERA would alter how good time credit is awarded and would expand the program to permit prisoners to earn credit for satisfactory participation in designated programs."

The article continued, "LERA would rewrite the good time statue to make clear that a prisoner is eligible to earn up to 54 days of good time credit per year for each year of the prisoner's sentence. Since 1988, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has interpreted the good time statute to award good time credit based on time actually served by the prisoner, not the sentence imposed by the judge. As a result, prisoners only earn a maximum of 47 days of good time for each year to which they are sentenced, instead of the 54 days per year that Congress [most likely] intended. The bill would also change the law to permit the BOP to 'subsequently restore any or all' credit previously denied the prisoner, based on good behavior as determined by the BOP... If passed, this section of the bill would apply to those people currently in prison serving sentences imposed after November 1, 1987."

While an additional 7 days of good time credit a year is not a huge deal, it is something. For a person sentenced to 10 years, this is 70 days off of their sentence, over two months. Perhaps the most important issue is that of the intent of Congress. I for one find it amazing that the intent of Congress has not been clarified in over 20 years. The fact that an uncertain law could stand for over 20 years and be a point of contention is a direct failure of the American judicial system. This is something for every American to be disappointed in. Though, the blame shouldn't rest solely upon Congress, because the Federal Bureau of Prisons too, has allowed this to go on for almost as long as I have been alive, which is a travesty.

FAMM further stated, "LERA would also authorize the director of the BOP to grant up to 60 additional credit days per year to an incarcerated individual who successfully participates in designated literacy, education, work training, treatment, and other developmental programs. The BOP director would determine the number of days of credit to be applied for any given program, based on its difficulty, required time, responsibility expected of the prisoner, rehabilitative benefits, and benefit to the BOP. This section of the bill would go into effect within 90 days of passage but would not operate to award credit for participation in programs that took place before the law goes into effect."

This part of House Resolution 2343 is what really matters. The issue at hand is what is being referred to as 'evidence-based practices' in today’s academic literature. The idea is that policy should be based upon legitimate studies and evidence, not personal opinion or the current political climate. To most researchers, it is obvious that education reduces recidivism, the release and return to prison through means of a technical violation or a new charge. Countless scientifically-sound studies prove this point.

The Journal of Correctional Education (December 2010) reported in "The Effect of Prison Education Programs on Recidivism" that the higher the education level achieved, the lower the rate of recidivism. Their findings are as follows:

For prisoners who attain an AA degree: 13.7% recidivism;

For prisoners who attain a Bachelor's degree: 5.6% recidivism;

For prisoners who attain a Master's degree: 0% recidivism!

It is also clear that the longer a person stays in an educational or rehabilitative program the less likely they are to recidivate. The same is true for the intensity of the program. The more intense the program is, the less likely the participant is to go back to a life of crime. Consequently, a prisoner should receive a greater reduction in the time they must serve for participating in a more demanding and lengthy program of education or rehabilitation.

Long story short, this bill is founded on sound evidence-based practices. It may not be the most politically correct piece of legislation out there - after all, not many support the plight of the American prisoner - but it is sensible in my book and in the book of countless other researchers. And if the American taxpayer were willing to see the true, proven benefit of such a program (e.g. Indiana State Prisons' lower recidivism rates in conjunction with their educational time credit policy), they too would agree that House Resolution 2343 is in their best interest.

FAMM ended by stating "The bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee. There is no companion bill in the Senate and the bill is not currently scheduled for consideration by the House Judiciary Committee."

With this last quote we are yet again reminded of the reality of the situation. House Resolution 2343 is a very good idea. It has the potential to help millions both in prison and out through reductions in prison terms and reductions in crime. After all, a bill such as this is yet more motivation for the prisoner to seek an education and turn their life around. Yet, as with the crack cocaine bill, we might just be waiting around for another 20 years for the next perfect storm to grace our political skies to effect meaningful change.

 Source: Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Journal of Correctional Education.

(This article first appeared in the State and Federal Criminal Law Review)