Looking for answers on overcrowded prisons - KALB-TV News Channel 5 & CBS 2

Looking for answers on overcrowded prisons

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By KATHY MATHESON and PETE YOST
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Some ex-offenders here report to federal court twice a month so that judges can gauge their progress, from drug testing and parenting classes to education and job training.

It's an attempt to address a stubborn problem: nearly 25 percent of offenders released into federal supervision were rearrested for a new offense within five years, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Another 14 percent violate the conditions of their supervision.

Attorney General Eric Holder is taking a look at the Philadelphia program Tuesday to call attention to an overburdened prison system and the high incidence of repeat criminals, the first of three such visits to promote innovative crime prevention initiatives. Holder will visit St. Louis and Peoria, Ill., on Nov. 14.

"The common thread of these programs is that it is very difficult to get out of a cycle of crime without proper rehabilitation," Holder said in an interview. "We should not be surprised" at high repeat offender rates "when we see people with education deficits, social deficits and we warehouse them and then just put them back into the same environment that they left."

In August, Holder announced a campaign he calls "Smart On Crime," an effort to identify changes that can ensure fair, efficient enforcement of federal laws in an era of reduced budgets and a high federal prison population, which stands at 219,000.

Seven years ago, federal judges in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania created a federal re-entry court that focuses on ex-criminal offenders with a significant risk of returning to a life of crime.

The goal of the program is to place participants on a path to employment rather than a cycle of crime. Those who successfully complete the 52-week program can reduce their court-supervised release by a year. It aims to cut Philadelphia's high violent crime rate by addressing the social, family and logistical issues confronting ex-offenders when they return to society.

Of 186 participants in the Supervision to Aid Re-Entry, or STAR, initiative over the past seven years, 142 have successfully completed the program or remain in it.

In a new change designed to keep ex-offenders on the right track, STAR will provide some participants with federal housing assistance under a federal voucher program.

"For every dollar we invest in programs like these we are going to save much more" in prison costs, an outcome that will enable spending limited law-enforcement resources on other priorities, Holder said.

While Philadelphia's program deals with high-risk offenders, the program in St. Louis is aimed at helping low-level drug offenders remain drug-free and the effort in Peoria, Ill., substitutes drug treatment for jail time for low-level drug offenders.

In all, 73 of 79 participants in the Peoria program have successfully completed it. The program operated by the U.S. Attorney's office, a federal court, the probation office and defense lawyers is designed for defendants whose criminal conduct was motivated by substance abuse. The Justice Department says over $6 million has been saved through the program - money that otherwise would have been spent on putting the defendants behind bars.

As part of his Smart On Crime program, Holder is arguing for scaling back the use of harsh prison sentences for certain drug-related crimes and expanding a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.

The attorney general said 17 states have directed money away from prison construction and toward programs and services such as treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce the problem of repeat offenders.

Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity and almost half of the prisoners are serving time for drug-related crimes. Many of them have substance use disorders. In addition, some 9 million to 10 million prisoners go through local jails each year.

"We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder told the American Bar Association in August. "To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and re-entry."

___

Yost reported from Washington.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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