By Sarah N. Lynch and Julia Harte
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The administration of President Donald Trump has been quietly cutting support for halfway houses for federal prisoners, severing contracts with as many as 16 facilities in recent months, prompting concern that some inmates are being forced to stay behind bars longer than necessary.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Justin Long confirmed the cuts in response to an email inquiry from Reuters, and said they only affect areas with small populations or underutilized centers.
"The Bureau remains firmly committed to these practices, but has had to make some modifications to our programs due to our fiscal environment," Long said.
Halfway houses have been a part of the justice system since the 1960s, with thousands of people moving through them each year. For-profit prison companies such as Geo Group Inc have moved into the halfway house market, though many houses are run directly by government agencies or non-profit organizations.
A Geo spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.
The bureau, which falls under the U.S. Department of Justice, last year had about 180 competitive contracts with "residential reentry centers" run by non-profit and for-profit companies, such as Geo.
The International Community Corrections Association says on its website there were about 249 separate halfway houses in communities nationwide that are covered by the 180 contracts.
Federal judges who spoke to Reuters said the cuts are having an impact in their districts, particularly in states with fewer facilities or larger geographic areas where the nearest center might be several hundred miles away.
Judge Edmund Sargus of the Southern District of Ohio said it was a real "stumper" when in July the government ended its contract with the Alvis facility serving the Dayton area.
Long said that the cuts have not reduced referral rates or placements, and only impact "about 1% of the total number of beds under contract."
However, the changes coincide with other major criminal justice policy shifts by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has pushed for more aggressive prosecutions of drug offenses and a crackdown on illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
In May, Sessions ordered prosecutors to charge defendants with the highest provable offense, a move that is likely to trigger lengthy prison sentences.
In 2016, of the 43,000 inmates released from federal prison, 79 percent were released into a halfway house or home confinement, according to the trade association.
“We need to improve re-entry services ... This move flies in the face of that consensus," said Kevin Ring, whose non-profit Families Against Mandatory Minimums has recently launched a Twitter campaign to raise awareness of the problem.
Sessions is scheduled to testify next week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ring said he hopes lawmakers will ask Sessions about the changes underway for halfway houses.
“Is cutting re-entry opportunities really going to make us safer? Congress needs to ask the Justice Department if this is part of their strategy," he said.
LONGER PRISON TIMES
For Kymjetta Carr, the cuts have had a personal impact. The 30-year-old from Cincinnati said she had expected her fiance Anthony Lamar to get out of prison and go to a halfway house in November, after serving seven years on a drug charge.
But she now has to tell their 10-year-old son his father won't be out for Christmas or his birthday because Lamar's release to a halfway house will not come until late July.
"It seems like the rug has been pulled out from under us," she said, in an interview arranged through Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Halfway houses are low-security residences for thousands of convicted prisoners serving alternative sentences or on release from prison into partial freedom programs on the outside. The facilities are meant to help prisoners reenter their communities, find a job and get their lives back on track.
A study commissioned last year by the Justice Department found that centers have come under greater strain in recent years, as more people have been released from prison.
Blair Campmier, executive director of Reality House in Columbia, Missouri, said he was notified in early June that the center’s eight-year-old contract would be terminated.
Some of his clients were sent to halfway houses in Kansas City and Springfield, more than two hours away. “They were not happy, and their families were not happy,” said Campmier.
Ricardo Martinez, the Chief U.S. District Judge in the Western District of Washington and Chairman of the Committee on Criminal Law of the Judicial Conference of the United States, told Reuters he has sent a letter to the Bureau of Prisons' new Director Mark Inch requesting discussions.
"From our perspective, these facilities are not only useful - they are essential," Martinez said.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Alden Bentley)