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Halfway Houses Less of an Option in White-Collar Crime

The Justice Department has slashed access to the alternative penal facilities, causing dozens of people to serve rest of their terms in prison.

May 25, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department's two-year crackdown on corporate crime has snared a number of high-flying executives for cheating investors out of billions of dollars.

Then there's Shawna Lyn Culter, check forger.

In March 2002, Culter, 40, was sentenced to a year in prison for pocketing stolen checks. A judge recommended she serve her time in a halfway house, where she appeared to make progress -- volunteering at her church, working part time at a library and saving money toward court-ordered restitution.

But a few months later, the Justice Department decided to put new limits on the time people can spend in halfway houses, responding to criticism that its Bureau of Prisons had been coddling "white-collar" defendants. On Dec. 23, officials sent letters to several dozen previously sentenced inmates, including Culter, telling them to pack their bags for prison.

As the Justice Department pursues crime on Wall Street and in the corporate boardroom, relatively few people have been charged and -- despite made-for-TV arrests -- fewer have been sentenced to jail.

The halfway house limits are nonetheless having an effect -- but on people who hardly qualify as tycoons.

Triggered by an anecdote about a supposedly slack sentence given to a West Virginia dentist, the halfway house limits already have threatened to uproot at least 132 inmates, including a disproportionate number of women, and will affect hundreds, if not thousands, of people sentenced in the future.

The policy has been challenged in dozens of cases across the country.

In Culter's case, a transfer to prison was blocked only after a court-appointed lawyer persuaded a judge that Culter -- who had been sexually abused by her father as a child and suffered from bipolar disorder -- was likely to fare poorly in prison.

"Indeed, all indications were that petitioner had begun the process of turning her life around," according to a ruling by U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle. In light of the fact that Culter had begun a course of regular medication and weekly counseling, in addition to her work and volunteer activities, the Justice Department's policy change was "entirely irrational," the judge said.

Susan Gilbride, a single mother of four, was not so lucky.

She had been living in a halfway house in Scranton, Pa., seven months into a one-year sentence for her role in a credit card scam. After getting her letter from the Justice Department in December, Gilbride also filed a lawsuit to block the transfer. But a federal judge decided that the policy change was not illegal.

So in February, she was ordered to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn. She lost her job at a Holiday Inn, which had allowed her to start repaying $3,400 in court-ordered restitution. And a bank foreclosed on the house she had recently purchased.

She left her children, ages 6, 7 and 10, with her 72-year-old mother and with friends. She also has a 20-year-old daughter. She hasn't seen them in four months.

"I got a job. I bought a house. I was getting my life back together. I was with my kids every day," Gilbride said in a telephone interview from the Danbury prison, where she earns 12 cents an hour working in the prison kitchen.

Now, "I have to do it all over again," she said. "I feel it is like punishment on top of punishment."

But at the Justice Department, officials argued that the old policy violated the law.

"The [Bureau of Prisons'] current placement practices run the risk of eroding public confidence in the federal judicial system," Deputy Atty. Gen. Larry Thompson wrote in a Dec. 16 letter to Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, then director of federal prisons, ordering the change. "White collar criminals are no less deserving of incarceration ... than conventional offenders."

The new rules ensure that defendants will get jail time by prohibiting judges from sentencing them directly to halfway houses. They also put a ceiling on the time that can be served in halfway houses -- 10% of the sentence.

The idea: make white-collar offenders think twice before engaging in criminal conduct. "Indeed, such individuals are often better educated and more rational than other criminals and are thus more likely to weigh the risks of possible courses of action against the anticipated rewards of behavior," Thompson wrote.

To critics, the policy change is, at best, based on a false premise about who resides in halfway houses, and at worst, a cynical attempt to make the administration seem tough on corporate crooks.

The vast majority of halfway house residents are "of the distinctly grimy collared variety," said U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor of Springfield, Mass. He said they include "bottom-echelon drug mules" and "single mothers struggling on welfare."

"To jettison even the possibility of a sentence of imprisonment to community corrections -- for anyone, ever -- is the ultimate act of tossing out the proverbial baby with the bath water," the judge said in one of the lawsuits filed against the policy.

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