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Old 07-26-2003, 06:23 PM
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danielle danielle is offline
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Post Judge upholds use of halfway houses

Judge upholds use of halfway houses

District judge orders Federal Bureau of Prisons to disregard Justice Department directive


Staff Reporter

U.S. District Judge Charles Butler Jr. is the latest federal jurist to take the Justice Department to task over its abrupt order to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to stop following judges' recommendations that certain defendants be sentenced to halfway houses.

Butler's ruling came in a lawsuit filed by four south Alabama convicts who received sentences of under a year and had been recommended for halfway houses when the Bureau of Prisons changed its policy last December. Butler barred the Bureau of Prisons from insisting the convicts report to prisons instead and told bureau officials to reassign them as if the policy had never changed.

The ruling here makes at least a dozen around the country that have found fault with the Bureau of Prisons' discontinuation of a 37-year-old practice of using halfway houses for low-level offenders, in contrast to at least nine other courts that have upheld it. Several of those rulings have been appealed, including one in Massachusetts in which the judge gave the bureau essentially the same directives Butler did.

Most -- if not all -- of the original cases involve some of the 125 federal inmates whose halfway house sentences were affected when the policy changed. How the Justice Department will respond to the rulings against it and how the cases are decided by higher courts will determine whether federal district judges can effectively continue to use halfway houses as alternatives for nonviolent, petty criminals.

The halfway house issue flared up in December when the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel issued a memo telling the Bureau of Prisons that it had broken the law for years by adhering to judges' wishes with regard to placing fringe offenders in work-release facilities.

Community corrections centers, as halfway houses are often called, typically allow inmates to serve time while receiving drug treatment and keeping their outside jobs, which in turn lets them support their families and more quickly pay restitution for their crimes.

"I think most courts find halfway houses an attractive option, as does the Bureau of Prisons. But they're really being hamstrung by Justice," said Todd Bussert, co-chairman of the corrections committee for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which has fought the policy change.

Butler wrote that the Justice Department lawyers "created ambiguity where none exists" by mixing up the language written by the U.S. Sentencing Commission with how Congress wrote the federal statutes that govern prisons.

To clear up any equivocations, the 17-page order relies upon the Oxford English Dictionary in determining that being imprisoned and being in a correctional facility are pretty much the same thing in terms of serving out a sentence.

"Although the Sentencing Commission may have created a distinction between 'imprisonment' and 'community confinement,' Congress did not," the judge wrote.

He went on to say that the manner in which the Justice Department told the Bureau of Prisons to change the policy violated the Administrative Procedures Act, a law requiring significant procedural shifts such as this to be opened to public comment prior to enactment. Several of the other successful challenges have won on similar grounds.

Butler stopped short of calling the Bureau of Prisons' new policy unconstitutional, something the convicts had alleged. In fact, he said, the agency still can deny a judge's request that a defendant get halfway house time. It just can't do so based on the faulty reasoning in the memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft's legal advisers' office, Butler wrote.

Justice Department officials did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. A Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman said the agency will do whatever various judges instruct it to do but that, in general, prison officials continue to follow the direction they received from Ashcroft's office.

Bussert said the Justice Department's move to all but eliminate halfway houses is part of a broader effort to give judges less discretion in sentencing. For several years, many federal judges have expressed frustration at the lack of flexibility they have in meting out punishment, a cry heard this year when the Justice Department set up a system to review the records of judges who rule against federal prosecutors in certain cases.

To get around such parameters, judges have resorted to creative arrangements such as the one the Butler put together earlier this year, in which he sentenced a criminal to five years of probation, on the condition that the probation be served in a halfway house.

That skirts the bureau's authority, to a degree, said Mobile lawyer Dom Soto, who represented one of the plaintiffs in the other halfway house case. Justice Department officials have not yet mounted a major challenge to such a maneuver, however.
Monica Danielle
On September 22, 2003, my better half came home after 657 days in an Alabama prison!!!

And he's now forever free - passing away from this life and into the next - on January 9, 2010.

My Sweet Wayne
January 21, 1954 - January 9, 2010

I'll always love you.
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