News / World

Justice Dept. announces changes to halfway house system

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department plans to overhaul its system of halfway houses, where most federal prisoners spend the final months of their sentences before being freed from custody, officials announced Wednesday.

The goal is to reduce the chances that inmates will commit crimes after their release and to help ease their return into society, the department said.

The initiative is part of the Justice Department's broader prisoner re-entry effort, which officials see as vital to reducing corrections costs and lowering the federal inmate population, and it comes just months after the department announced plans to end its use of private prisons.

The halfway houses serve more than 30,000 residents a year. The federal Bureau of Prisons has agreements with 103 contractors to operate 181 facilities across the country.

"We've been working on re-entry issues for some time now," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said during a White House discussion Wednesday, while announcing changes that she said "will live on past this administration" and become "part of the DNA" of the prisons bureau.

Her remarks came as the Justice Department issued a memo directing the bureau to establish uniform standards for halfway house providers, to collect data about the facilities and post "report cards" about them online and to strengthen programs for female inmates.

The memo also says the bureau will begin covering the costs of government-issued identification cards, including Social Security cards and birth certificates, that can help inmates arriving at halfway houses find jobs or even apply for them. Officials expect that move to save money by helping inmates get work more easily and speeding their transfers to home confinement and less expensive options.

"Everyone coming out of prison should be able to come back as a whole person, not just a number that's been assigned some years before," Lynch said. "If you've been stripped of your identification, literally, as an inmate and then don't have a chance to regain it when you come out, it can be a huge stumbling block."

The memo also directs the bureau to expand its oversight and monitoring of halfway house contracts and create a semi-autonomous school district to offer literacy and other programs within the prison system. It also says the bureau should attempt to negotiate a single, nationwide contract for location-monitoring services. Each halfway house is currently responsible for monitoring the whereabouts of its residents when they leave for a job, family purposes or other reasons.

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