House passes bipartisan prison reform bill on early release for older offenders

Prison Reform demonstrators at U.S. Capitol
Demonstrators participate in a rally held outside of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., to call for criminal justice reform and the passage of the First Step Act on July 10, 2018. |

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill Tuesday that would enable prisoners age 60 and older to be released to home confinement if they meet certain qualifications.

In a voice vote, the House unanimously passed H.R. 4018, which would amend the bipartisan First Step Act signed into law by President Trump last year. The bill would clarify how much time a federal prisoner must serve before being eligible for placement in home detention. 

H.R. 4018 would give the Bureau of Prisons authority to transfer eligible, elderly offenders from a BOP facility into home confinement when they reach age 60, as long as they have served two-thirds of their sentence. 

The legislation clarifies that the two-thirds of a sentence that an eligible inmate must serve is to be reduced “by the number of good time credits earned by the prisoner, and for other purposes.”

Reform advocates took issue with the fact that the First Step Act was interpreted by the BOP to mean two-thirds of an offender’s original sentence, not two-thirds of an offender’s sentence with good time credit. 

The bill was introduced by Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., in July and co-sponsored by 12 other members of the House, including five Republicans. 

“When the FIRST STEP Act was signed into law last year, it represented monumental bipartisan reform to our prison system. Today’s bill builds upon that momentum because it promotes fairness in the implementation of Good Conduct Time,” Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., said in a statement. 

“[This] bipartisan bill will ensure our prisons do not become nursing homes, it will save taxpayer dollars and it will reward inmates who serve their time with good behavior. I look forward to seeing the Senate pass this bill and the president sign it into law,” Collins added. 

According to Deutch, the bill is an important clarification to the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program instituted in the First Step Act. 

“As elderly prisoners are among the most vulnerable populations in prisons, this fix to include good time credit will allow more of them to benefit from this program,” he said. “Not only is this the right thing to do, but it will also reduce federal costs in our prison system.”

In October, a bipartisan coalition of 34 criminal justice reform advocacy organizations sent a joint letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., during the passage of H.R. 4018.

Organizations that signed onto the letter include the American Conservative Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, Heritage Action, the Church of Scientology National Affairs Office, and Right on Crime. 

The letter cited data from the Bureau of Prisons which shows that inmates 50 and older are the “fastest-growing segment of its inmate population,” which increased by 25 percent from the fiscal year 2009 to the fiscal year 2013. 

The letter warned that America’s prisons are “looking more and more like old-age homes.”

“The human cost is reprehensible,” the letter reads. “But the fiscal cost is equally irresponsible.”

“Obviously, home confinement is much cheaper for the taxpayer than housing and feeding someone in a prison,” the advocacy organizations' letter added. “It further goes without saying that the medical care available on ‘the outside’ is incomparably better than the mediocre medical care available in prison.”

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