This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Too many Republicans in Congress have spent the years since Barack Obama was elected doing little but get in the way of productive governing. In contrast, it seems Utah's Rep. Jason Chaffetz has spent at least the past year or two researching the best method of reforming the federal prison system.
What he and his supporters, including former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, have come up with appears to be a sensible, compassionate but tough program for getting low-risk inmates into cheaper forms of incarceration and helping them prepare for life after prison so they are less likely to return.
Chaffetz said his yet-to-be-introduced legislation has the backing of both Republican and Democratic members of Congress and organizations on both ends of the political spectrum. That, in itself, is nearly unique in this frustrating era of obstructionist politics.
While there is nothing to indicate Chaffetz is abandoning his partisan attacks on the president over the deaths of Americans at our embassy in Bengazi, he deserves credit for going after expensive and excessively punitive federal corrections policies. It's an approach that involves actual legislation rather than mere bombast.
He explained that the program would work by evaluating federal prisoners after their sentencing and labeling each as having a high, moderate or low risk of recidivism. The criteria would include their level of engagement in rehabilitation programs, whether they hold a prison job or participate in faith-based services and education.
Those deemed low-risk would earn 30 days credit per month, while moderate-risk inmates would get 15 days per month, and high-risk prisoners eight days. Only low-risk inmates would be eligible for a pre-release move into a halfway house, home confinement or ankle-bracelet program.
The program would exclude prisoners convicted of violent felonies, terrorism, rape or a sex offense against a minor. Undocumented immigrants would also be ineligible for a number of reasons, including that most would be quickly deported.
The legislation would not affect current mandatory minimum sentencing or Truth in Sentencing requirements, since no inmate would be released, but merely moved to less-expensive custody, Chaffetz said. The program would be phased in over five years so the initial costs would be at least partially offset by savings.
The legislation is still percolating, but if the final bill is as Chaffetz now explains it, Congress should pass it.