Legal Groups Urge Broad Search for Federal Prisons Director

Bruce Green in The BLT: The Blog of LegalTimes, May 11, 2011

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Posted by Mike Scarcella

Three legal groups are urging Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to recruit from a national candidate pool in the department's search for a new director for the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Representatives from the American Bar Association, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Human Rights Watch wrote Holder this month about the department’s search to replace Harley Lappin, who retired effective May 7.

NACDL president Jim Lavine said Holder should not focus exclusively on promoting from within. Thomas Kane, an assistant BOP director since 1991, is now serving as acting director, overseeing more than 100 federal prisons.

“Since 1964, BOP’s director has been promoted from within its career ranks, with no evident attempt to recruit outside candidates,” Lavine said in a May 5 letter (PDF). “We believe that developments in the past two decades, notably changes in BOP’s size and correctional mandate, argue for a broader search.”

Lavine of Zimmermann, Lavine, Zimmermann, & Sampson, in Houston, said the increase in BOP’s size “has not been accompanied by corresponding changes in management philosophy and institutional culture.”

“If agency size alone were the measure of importance, the search for a new BOP director would be as rigorous as the search for a new FBI director,” Lavine said. “Quite apart from their comparable size, however, these two organizations are equally responsible in their respective spheres for keeping the American public safe and secure.”

Lappin, who had run BOP for more than eight years, resigned effective May 7. Lappin was arrested in Maryland in February on DUI charges. Court records show he is scheduled for a hearing in June. A BOP spokeswoman reportedly said at the time that Lappin had earlier decided to retire this spring.

Bruce Green, chair of the ABA’s criminal justice section, urged Holder in a May 6 letter (PDF) to “cast a wide net in choosing a new director, and to make clear that professional independence will be the central and prized qualification.”

“If the search for a new BOP director goes no further than BOP’s career ranks, the Department may lose an important opportunity to reinvigorate the agency and assure that it truly is the gold standard in corrections,” said Green, a Fordham University law school professor.

A Justice Department spokeswoman was not immediately reached for comment on the status of the search.