by Steve Horn
Mark Inch, director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, resigned on May 18, 2018. At first it was unclear why he stepped down, but The New York Times has since reported that sources told the paper Inch resigned in protest of the role played by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions with respect to proposed federal legislation called the First Step Act.
The First Step Act (H.R. 5682) is currently under consideration by the U.S. Senate after it passed in the House in a 360-59 bipartisan vote on May 22, 2018. It is seen as a small but not insignificant effort at federal prison reform by its proponents, including Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser and the son-in-law of President Donald Trump. Trump, too, has come out in support of the legislation, though many prisoner advocacy groups have objected to the bill due to several controversial provisions and because it does not go far enough.
Sessions, a “tough on crime” and “law and order” Republican dating back to his days as the state Attorney General for Alabama, also reportedly opposes the legislation. As the overseer of the Bureau of Prisons, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, Sessions had Inch awkwardly caught in the middle of advocates for and against the bill. Inch, in response, threw in the towel after just nine months on the job. He had been appointed to head the BOP in August 2017. [See: PLN, Sept. 2017, p.24].
Inch “complained that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had largely excluded him from major staffing, budget and policy decisions, according to three people with knowledge of the situation,” the Times reported. “Mr. Inch also felt marginalized by Mr. Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, in drafting prison reform legislation, the officials said.”
Sessions, though, denied he was against the First Step Act.
“The attorney general firmly stands behind the principles of prison reform,” Sarah Isgur Flores, a spokeswoman for Sessions, told the Times. “On this specific bill, we have worked closely with the team to offer suggestions that we believe will protect safety and improve rehabilitative outcomes.”
Meanwhile, former Assistant Director Hugh Hurwitz is now at the helm of the Bureau of Prisons as its Interim Director.
The First Step Act has come under fire by Senate Democrats, including potential presidential candidates U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, because it does not include sentencing reform.
Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General under President Obama, has come out against the bill for similar reasons in an opinion piece published by the Washington Post.
“Over the past decade, Republicans and Democrats across the country have joined forces to advocate for a fairer, more effective criminal-justice system – one that would keep us safe while reducing unnecessary mass incarceration,” Holder wrote. “But now the Trump administration is pushing a misguided legislative effort ... that threatens to derail momentum for sentencing reform. The bill is a tempting half-measure, but lawmakers should resist the lure.”
The First Step Act would ensure that federal prisoners are housed in facilities within 500 miles of their families, receive up to 54 days of good time credit per year and can receive earned good time for participation in educational and vocational programs; it also provides up to $250 million in funding over five years for rehabilitative programs and bans the shackling of pregnant prisoners, among other provisions. However, it uses controversial algorithms that have been criticized for racial bias to determine risk factors, would deny earned time credits to prisoners with higher risk factors and does not address sentencing reform, including limitations on mandatory minimums.
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