Trump’s prison plan to release thousands of inmates

President Donald Trump points to his ear and says, “Did I hear the word bipartisan?” as he announces his support for the First Step Act in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Nov. 14, 2018.
President Donald Trump points to his ear and says, “Did I hear the word bipartisan?” as he announces his support for the First Step Act in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Nov. 14, 2018. AP

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Sweeping changes to the federal prison system will allow tens of thousands of federal inmates to be released from prison over the next 10 years, but there’s little data about who or where they are now.

The legislation signed by President Donald Trump on Friday makes big changes to the treatment and rehabilitation of low-level federal prisoners.

Qualifying Inmates — mostly people who have committed low-level drug offenses — can earn credits to be released from prison early and serve the remainder of their sentence in home confinement or halfway houses if they participate in the plan’s anti-recidivism programs such as job training, education and faith-based classes.

The Bureau of Prisons and Congressional Budget Office, which analyzed the plan for cost, estimated roughly 53,000 prisoners could be released over the next 10 years.

There are roughly 180,000 current federal inmates, according to the Bureau of Prisons, which declined to comment on which facilities would be impacted.

“It wouldn’t be prisons in any one specific location… but generally those classified as minimum security facilities or prison camps,” said Derek Cohen, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, which supported the reforms. “Some of these places don’t even have fences right now.”

The Congressional Budget Office also said it did not have data broken down by location. There are 120 federal prisons located across the country, including in Fort Worth.

The new law, called the First Step Act, retroactively applies changes Congress made to drug sentencing laws in 2010, which experts say will allow between 4,000 and 6,000 current prisoners (included in the 53,000 estimate) to immediately qualify for supervised release programs.

“They’re not going to be released the next day, they’re going on to what’s known as community supervision for three to five years, as was stipulated when their actual sentence was handed down,” Cohen said of those inmates.

The CBO report did not take into account changes made to the bill that excluded some types of violent offenders, such as people who used a firearm in their crime, from being able to participate in its programs.

“These are ones that generally house much lower-end offenders, folks that would be in the minimum to low-risk category by [the law’s] risk assessments, but also by their security conditions,” said Cohen.

CBO estimates the plan would cost taxpayers roughly $346 million over the next 10 years, in part because released prisoners will be eligible for federal benefits like health insurance markets and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

That number does not take into account savings from fewer prison beds necessary for fewer inmates.

Based on CBO’s data, Cohen estimated that reduction in the federal prison population would allow for the closure of three or four federal facilities by the end of ten years. Texas implemented similar reforms in 2007, and has since closed eight of its state prison facilities.

Fort Worth is home to a low-security medical center built in the 1930s as a federal drug treatment facility near what is now Rolling Hills Park and Loop 820. It houses roughly 1,800 male inmates.

A second facility, Federal Medical Center, Carswell, is located in northwest Fort Worth, and houses roughly 1,400 female prisoners with medical and mental health needs. It also has a minimum-security prison camp.

Cohen said medical facilities aren’t among those likely to see significant reductions to their inmate population.

“If you look at some of the inmates there, they might have special mental health needs that wouldn’t qualify them in the [law’s] risk assessment,” said Cohen. “For special mental health needs.. the opportunity to exempt them from the process is pretty low.”

The First Step Act faced intense debate on Capitol Hill over what type of prisoners would be eligible for its programs.

Some conservative lawmakers fought the plan all the way up to its congressional passage this week, arguing that it didn’t take enough precautions to keep violent offenders from getting out.

Advocates for the plan argue its reforms have already been successful in a handful of states, including Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Kentucky, which implemented them at the state level and saw a significant reduction in crime.

“If you take even the most tepid of reforms that those states have done, this federal bill maybe gets you like a third to a halfway there,” said Cohen.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy contributed to this report.

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.