The Second Chance Act and Early Release: Rhetoric versus Reality

by Herbert J. Hoelter

Co-Founder and CEO

July 2018

Over the past few months, I have received dozens of emails, calls and letters from federal inmates, attorneys and family members regarding the Second Chance Act, requesting assistance in “qualifying” for early release under this provision. While sympathetic to the plight of those federal inmates, my response is inevitably disappointing. The Second Chance Act, with respect to providing actual early release for federal inmates, is a myth. Since enacted in 2008, and reauthorized in 2017, I have yet to see any inmates who were granted over six months community confinement using this provision.

By way of background, Congress passed the original Second Chance Act with strong bipartisan support and President George Bush signed it into law in 2008. This Act authorized federal funding for state and federal reentry programs. Administered by the Department of Justice, since 2009 Second Chance Act awards have been made to over 800 grantees in 49 states.

Particular to federal inmates, the Act also gave the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) the authority to expand the length of halfway house (RRC) time an inmate can receive. Prior to this Act, the BOP was limited to a six month term of halfway house placement for offenders leaving federal prison. Although 18 U.S.C § 3621 still limits home confinement to 10% of time served, the Act gave the BOP the discretion to consider up to 12 months of halfway house placement. As would be expected, a wave of excitement and optimism was instilled in federal inmates across the country.

Unfortunately, this balloon of hope was swiftly popped. While the BOP now had the discretion to award expanded halfway house time, the Act also stated “…there is no new requirement that the BOP give every person the full 12 months in a halfway house at the end of their sentence.” Whether for ideological or budgetary reasons (or both), in my experience over the past 10 years the BOP never embraced the 12 month provision. And the situation is only getting worse.

Over the past year, the amount of time inmates are being given in halfway house placements has been declining. Halfway houses across the country are being closed, and others are voluntarily getting out of the business for lack of referrals. A halfway house in Charlotte, N.C. recently decided to close when its population, normally close to 100, was reduced to 25 inmates. Many are attributing this decline to the surge of contracts being diverted to private prison operators for operation of immigrant detention facilities.

Whatever the reasons, the reality is that inmates in the BOP should not hold out hope for increased time in the community. For them, reentry is a slogan for politicians.