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Whitehouse-Cornyn Prison Reform Bill Approved by Judiciary Committee

Washington, D.C. – With prison costs continuing to skyrocket and prison populations overflowing, legislation authored by U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and John Cornyn (R-TX) was passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan vote of 15-2.  The Senators issued the following statements after the vote:

“As a former state and federal prosecutor, I recognize that there are no easy solutions to overflowing prison populations and skyrocketing corrections spending,” said Whitehouse, a former U.S. Attorney and Attorney General for Rhode Island.  “But states like Rhode Island have shown that it is possible to cut prison costs while making the public safer.  When inmates are better prepared to re-enter communities, they are less likely to commit crimes after they are released.  I thank Senator Cornyn for working with me on this bipartisan bill, which would potentially save hundreds of millions of dollars and reduce the prison population.”

“Texas has been at the forefront of prison reform, creating partnerships with faith-based programs and encouraging workforce participation to ensure that first-time offenders don’t become repeat offenders.  By reducing the number of prisoners in the justice system, we have been able to cut costs for the state, and improve the safety of our communities,” said Sen. Cornyn.  “I am hopeful the Senate will choose to follow the lead of Texas and I sincerely hope that this bill will quickly be brought up for debate on the Senate floor.”

During the last fiscal year, the costs of detaining federal inmates represented more than 30% of the Justice Department’s budget.  Since 2000, costs associated with federal prisons and detention have doubled.  As a result, funding for other important federal law enforcement priorities – from stopping cyber threats to providing services for victims of crime – has suffered.

The Whitehouse-Cornyn legislation was offered as a substitute to S. 1675, the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, introduced by Senator Whitehouse and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), and combines elements of that bill and S. 1783, the Federal Prison Reform Act, introduced by Senator Cornyn, along with Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA).  It would address this growing problem by building on reforms that have proven successful at the state level.  In Rhode Island, for example, the state legislature enacted a package of changes to its criminal justice system in 2008 that were followed by a 9 percent decline in the state’s prison population — as well as a 7 percent decline in the state’s crime rate.  In 2007, Texas enacted a package of reforms that saved $443 million over two years and led to the closure of a prison for the first time in the state’s history.

Background on the Whitehouse-Cornyn Legislation:

  • Requires all eligible offenders to undergo regular risk assessments to determine whether an offender has a low, medium, or high-risk of recidivism.
  • Excludes all sex offenders, terrorism offenders, violent offenders, repeat offenders, major organized crime offenders, and major fraud offenders from participation in the program.
  • Encourages participation in recidivism reduction programs and productive activities, like prison jobs.
  • Contains no new authorized spending, and requires the mandated recidivism reduction programs to be provided by faith-based groups, non-profits, or through savings generated by the legislation.
  • Allows earned time credits for low-risk prisoners of up to 10 days for every 30 days that the prisoner is successfully completing a recidivism reduction program or productive activity.
  • Allows medium risk prisoners to earn a 5 day for 30 day time credit while successfully completing recidivism reduction programs and productive activities. These offenders would only be able to use these credits if they demonstrate a substantial reduction in their probability of recidivism as a result of participation in programs.
  • Does not allow high risk offenders to use any time credits unless they reduce their risk levels to a lower tier. 
  • Would allow certain low risk offenders who demonstrate exemplary behavior to spend the final portion of their earned credit time on community supervision.

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