Mobile lawyers challenge Ashcroft's
halfway house order
Mobile lawsuit seeks
injunction against Ashcroft order overriding judges' recommendations
By JOE DANBORN
A group of Mobile defense lawyers has sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons on
behalf of clients whom federal authorities are sending to prison rather than the
halfway houses recommended by judges in their cases.
The lawsuit -- and others like it around the country -- seeks an injunction
against a recent decision by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to quit
following recommendations from judges and other court officers for halfway house
Six weeks ago, an Ashcroft deputy sent a memo to the head of the U.S. Bureau of
Prisons, telling her to stop using halfway houses altogether. The memo followed
an opinion from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel that berated
the BOP for its long-standing practice of carrying out federal judges' requests
regarding where convicts should serve their time.
"Community confinement does not constitute imprisonment for purposes of a
sentencing order, and BOP lacks clear general statutory authority to place in
community confinement an offender who has been sentenced to a term of
imprisonment," the opinion declares.
A Justice Department spokesman said Thursday that officials there were unaware
of the BOP's practice until recently, even though the practice itself dates back
at least 37 years.
To qualify for sentencing to a halfway house, a convict must be a first-time,
non-violent offender, a description that fits most white-collar criminals.
"There can't be two standards of law, one for one group of criminals and one for
white-collar criminals," said Mark Corallo, the spokesman.
Dom Soto, one of the lawyers in the Mobile case, said he did not object to that
"If it's letting all those creeps from Enron get out of prison time because they
have judge friends, well I agree, let's stop it," Soto said. "But it doesn't
take into account people in situations like our clients are in."
All three convicts in the Mobile lawsuit were sentenced to terms of five months
or less, with the judge in each case recommending that the time be served at the
Community Corrections Center on the Mobile Bay Causeway. Now, however, the BOP
has ordered them to report to penitentiaries.
As with most halfway house cases, the three Mobile convicts each convinced a
judge and other court officers that society and the inmates would be better
served by allowing them to continue to work.
April Mizell Estes, of Citronelle, pleaded guilty to bank fraud. She has a
4-year-old daughter, an infant son and a third child due in May. Chief U.S.
District Judge Charles Butler Jr. sentenced her to five months at the halfway
house and ordered her to repay $75,275, which she has been paying back ahead of
schedule, according to the lawsuit.
Antonio Madden and his wife pleaded guilty to conspiring to pos sess Ecstasy
with the intent to distribute. They faced up to 12 months of confinement.
Hearing that Madden's wife was disabled and needed surgery and that Madden would
have to support her, Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Vollmer Jr. sentenced
her to home confinement and Madden to the halfway house.
Scotty Summers likewise pleaded guilty to conspiring to deal Ecstasy and got a
five-month term from Vollmer, with the added recommendation that he be admitted
to drug and mental health treatment programs at the halfway house. Instead, the
BOP wants him to enter a Mississippi prison that offers no such programs, the
All three are due to report to prison before the end of the month. Public
defender Chris Knight, Estes' lawyer, said he would ask Butler to postpone that
deadline until after the judge has heard arguments on the convicts' request for
a restraining order.
A BOP spokeswoman said the new policy means 125 inmates face transfer from
halfway houses to prison. She offered no guess as to how many inmates get
halfway house sentences each year, but said officials had determined the
additional inmates would place no strain on the federal prison system. For now,
inmates may only enter a halfway house to serve out the final 10 percent of
Late last month, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., blocked the BOP from
sending a convict to prison, while a judge in Detroit ruled against a convict
there. Cases are pending in Arkansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North
Carolina, Tennessee, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense
Already, defense lawyers and judicial officers are looking for ways around the
new policy. After the Justice Department decided that the change would affect
only those half way house inmates with 150 days or more left to serve, Butler
took one month off Estes' sentence, but the BOP still ordered her to report to
prison in Tallahassee, Fla. Moreover, U.S. marshals in Mobile asked the BOP for
an exception in Estes' case due to a clerical error on their part, but the BOP
turned them down, Knight said.
On Wednesday, the same day the Mobile lawsuit was filed, Butler sentenced
another of Knight's clients to five years of probation, but made it a condition
of that probation that he serve five months of it in a halfway house. Whether
that and similar maneuvers stand unchallenged remains to be seen, Knight said.
"It does somewhat complicate things because we've always relied on the court's
authority to at least recommend halfway house confinement in less serious
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