Inmates could receive credits for taking part in rehabilitation programs such as education or job training under legislation advanced by a House panel.

David Silverman, Getty Images
David Silverman, Getty Images

The bipartisan legislation approved by the House Judiciary Committee Thursday is designed to help prisoners succeed after they are released and keep them from returning to prison. Some low-risk inmates could earn credits toward release into halfway houses or home confinement if they participate in prison programs like academic classes, job training, community service or behavioral treatment.

"The bill places a new focus on rehabilitation, not just punishment and incarceration," said Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill is part of a larger package of criminal justice overhaul legislation that the judiciary panel is approving piece by piece. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a comprehensive bill last October that included similar efforts to reduce recidivism.

The House legislation creates a new risk-assessment program to determine the chances of an inmate committing more crimes after he or she is released. Dangerous criminals such as sex offenders and murderers would not be eligible to be released into halfway houses or home custody.

It would also allow some elderly prisoners to be released from prisons early and prohibit the use of restraints on most pregnant inmates.

The bipartisan House and Senate bills aim to reduce overcrowding in the nation's prisons, save taxpayer dollars and give some nonviolent offenders a second chance while keeping the most dangerous criminals in prison. Various voices -- from President Barack Obama and the American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Koch Industries -- have said the system is broken and have backed the effort. In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is around 200,000.

The House Judiciary Committee last year passed a separate bill that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. The Senate bill contained similar language.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has said criminal justice will be a priority but has not said when the full House might consider it. The legislation has run into opposition in the Senate, where some conservative senators have argued it would let violent criminals out of prison. Supporters sharply dispute that charge.

After the hearing, Goodlatte said he believes there will be House floor votes on the legislation this year. He said opposition in the Senate won't complicate the House's efforts.

"Every single line of every single bill has been negotiated in a bipartisan fashion and supported and passed out of the committee in a bipartisan fashion," Goodlatte said of his panel's bills. "That's the way the Senate's going to have to act as well."

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