Politicians take ‘First Step’ towards Criminal Reform

First the facts. America is in the midst of a mass  incarceration  epidemic.  And  most  of  the  people  being  incarcerated  look like The Michigan Chronicle’s readers, family members and other people of color.
As the ACLU has tragically noted de-spite making up close to 5% of the global population,  the  U.S.  has  nearly  25%  of  the   world’s   prison   population.   Since   1970,  our  incarcerated  population  has  increased  by  700%  –  2.3  million  people  in  jail  and  prison  today,  far  outpacing  population  growth  and  crime.  (https://www.aclu.org/issues/smart-justice/mass-incarceration)

In  fact,  the  organization  points  out  that  one  out  of  every  three  Black  boys  born  today  can  expect  to  go  to  prison  in  his  lifetime,  as  can  one  of  every  six  Latino  boys—compared  to  one  of  every  17 white boys. At the same time, women are   the   fastest   growing   incarcerated   population in the United States. (https://www.aclu.org/issues/smart-justice/mass-incarceration)

So, while politicians of both political parties,   television   commentators   and   other  talking  heads  celebrate  the  pas-sage and signing last week of the bipartisan criminal reform law called “The First Step Act,” it is important that the bill is put in its proper perspective. Especially for people of color, who are the  most  impacted  by  such  legislation.

Simply  put,  the  First  Step  Act  would  expand  job  training  and  other  program-ming aimed at reducing recidivism rates among federal prisoners. It also expands early-release   programs   and   modifies   sentencing  laws,  including  mandatory  minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders,   to   more   equitably   punish   drug   offenders.

So, what does that mean on a practical level for people who are incarcerated or have loved ones who are?

Marc Mauer, is the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing  Project,  one  of  the  nation’s  leading  criminal justice reform advocacy organizations.  His  group  worked  closely  with  Congress in drafting and passing the legislation. He said although it might be understandable for those most affected by the scourge of mass incarceration to be skeptical, about another bill claiming to ease the burden of this policy on people of color and the poor, The First Step Act is a significant accomplishment.

“This is not going to end mass incarceration,” he said. “This is modest progress. We have a lot more to do. But at the same time, it still is a significant piece of legislation nonetheless.“

Mauer said the symbolism of a right-wing  Congress  and  president,  join  a  racially,  ethnically,  religious,  politically  and   ideologically   diverse   coalition   of   people  to  advocate  for  criminal  justice  reform  cannot  be  dismissed.
“The  fact  is  we  had  a  conservative  Congress  and  law  and  order  president  come  together  to  support  sentencing  reform  that  will  largely benefit people of color.

“In  practical  terms,  the  number  of  people  affected  is  not  trivial,”  he  said.  “For  starts,  the  bill  makes  retroactive  the  crack  cocaine  sentencing  reform  of  2010.  So  that’s  2,600  people  who  will  now  benefit  from  having  their  sentences  reduced  about  two  years  on  average.  And as we know about 80 percent of that group are African American.”

Another  provision   will   affect   the   federal  three  strikes  law  under  which  a  third  drug  offense  will  currently  get  you  a  mandatory  life  sentence  with-out  parole.  Under  the  new  law,  that  is  changed to a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison.

“Which  is  still  a  very  long  sentence,  but much less than life,” Mauer said.

Both of Michigan’s Democratic senators supported the bill. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow  said  in  a  statement  to  the  Michigan  Chronicle  that  the  First  Step  Act takes the first step towards reforming  and  modernizing  our  criminal  jus-tice  system.  “While  there  is  still  much  more work to be done to ensure fairness and justice for all Americans, this bill is an important step in the right direction and I voted for it in the Senate.”

U.S.  Sen.  Gary  Peters  agreed. In an email to the Michigan    Chronicle    he    said   the   nation’s   criminal   justice   system   is   long  overdue  for  serious  changes and reforms and in   too   many   instances   in  Michigan  and  across  the  country,  our  current  system   has   not   treated   every   American   equally   under  the  law  –  and  that  has eroded faith in our institutions.
“This legislation takes important steps to reduce prison overcrowding and  recidivism   so   that   in-mates can return to society after completing their sentences    –    all    while    saving   taxpayer   dollars.   I look forward to  building  on  this  progress  and  more   closely   examining   ways to create a more just system for all,” he said.

According      to      the      #FirstStepAct      website,    other provisions included in the bill are:

  • Fix   Good   Time   Cred-its   ensuring   that   incarcerated    individuals    can  earn  the  54  days  of  good  time  credit  per  year, and not just the 47 days that BOP currently allows. This retroactively applies to everyone in federal prison  who has  earned  credit  for  good  behavior.
  • Major incentives for participating in programs, allowing for 10 days in pre-release custody for  every  30 days of successful participation, with no cap on the prerelease credit that can be earned.
  • Availability of prerelease custody by requiring the  BOP  to  transfer  low  and  minimum  risk  prisoners  to   prerelease   custody—either a half-way house or home confinement.
  • Creation and expansion of life-changing class-es   by   authorizing   $250   million  over  five  years  to  the  BOP  for  the  development   and   expansion   of   programming  focused  on  skill-building,   education   and vocational training.
  • Prioritize people inside  who need it most because evidence  shows  that  individuals  who  are  at  the  greatest   risk   of   future   crime   are   the   most   in   need  of  treatment,  classes, and counseling.
  • Move people closer to  home    because    contact    with  family  is  one  of  the  most   important   aspects   that  will  help  individuals  reintegrate   into   society   successfully.
  • Dignity for women by banning the  shackling  of  pregnant  women  and  ex-tending those protections to three months after her pregnancy.   In   addition,  the    bill    requires    that    Bureau   of   Prisons   provide sanitary napkins and tampons  to  incarcerated  women at no cost.
  • Provide IDs to  ensure  that   individuals   leaving   federal  prison  have  their  ID prior to their release.
  • Expand Compassionate  release  by  reducing  the  minimum age of prisoner eligibility  for  elderly  re-lease from 65 years of age to  60  years  of  age,  and  minimum  time  served  of  prisoner  eligibility  for  elderly release from 75% to 2/3.

Judges  will  also  now  have   greater   discretion   to  use  the  “safety  valve”  which   allows   them   to   avoid  imposing  a  mandatory  sentence  if  they  believe the defendant is not a major player in the drug trade. Studies   have   shown   that   our   prison   system   cost   taxpayers   $80   billion  a  year.  So,  criminal  justice  reform  and  sentencing  reform,  in  particular,  is  not  only  a  moral  imperative but a fiduciary one  too.  Which,  in  fact,  explains much of the conservative  support  for  this  particular effort.

The  money  saved  by  such   reform   could   be   much   more   wisely   be   invested  in  building  up  communities  from  where  many  of  the  incarcerated  emerge    and    eventually    will return. That  said,  legal  scholars  may  very  well  be  the  basis    of    the    “Second    Step” in meaningful criminal justice reform.

“It  was  the  first  step  and  I  hope  not  the  last  step  in  criminal  justice  reform   and   sentencing   reform,”     said     Joshua     Dressler,  a  professor  of  Criminal  Law  and  Procedure at the Moritz College of  Law  at  The  Ohio  State  University.

“It  is  a  good  step but obviously much, much,  more  needs  to  be  done.” Dressler  however,  expects  any  next  step  to  be  even  more  difficult  to  achieve  than  the  multi-year  effort  that  resulted  in the First Step Act. “It’s   very   difficult   to   get  legislators  to  pass  a  law that can be interpreted  as  soft  on  crime,”  he  said.  “I can’t  say  I’m  optimistic about there being a  “second  step  any  time  soon,  but  I’m  pleased  we  got this first step.”

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