Editorials of The Times: The Right Way to Fix the Prisons
Posted May 20, 2018 9:43 p.m. EDT
President Donald Trump gave a rare display of empathy at a prison-reform meeting at the White House on Friday.
“A friend of mine told me that when people get out of prison, they’re all excited,” Trump said. “And then they go and they have that stigma; they can’t get a job. People don’t want to hire them. They can’t get that chance. When we talk about our national program to hire American, this must include helping millions of former inmates get back into the workforce as gainfully employed citizens.”
Sounds good. Too bad his attorney general is Jeff Sessions, a man who has made a career of opposing meaningful justice reform.
For more than a decade, states of every political hue — from Texas and Louisiana to Connecticut and California — have been overhauling their criminal justice systems, to reverse the effects of decades of harsh and counterproductive policies.
But Congress has watched this revolution from the sidelines, thanks to reactionary lawmakers, including Sessions when he was in the Senate. Comprehensive federal legislation has been foiled again and again, as states forge ahead, reducing both prison populations and crime rates through bipartisan reforms.
In the balance is a bloated federal prison system that locks up more than 180,000 people, a sevenfold increase since 1980. That population, which is disproportionately black and brown, began to decline under President Barack Obama, but is now on track to grow again under the new, more punitive policies of Sessions’ Justice Department.
Now two big justice-reform bills are making their way through Congress, and they’ve scrambled the usual partisan lines.
One bill backed by the White House, known as the First Step Act, would improve some prison conditions and help smooth the path to re-entry for people behind bars. It would, for example, require that inmates be housed within 500 miles of their families, prohibit the brutal but disturbingly common practice of shackling pregnant women and expand rehabilitative programs in which prisoners can participate to earn good-time credits. These are all important and long-overdue fixes to existing law.
But the bill would leave it up to individual prison wardens to decide who gets to use their credits and when, which means inmates would be treated differently based on where they’re locked up. The bill also restricts early release to halfway houses, even though as many as 40 percent of people behind bars pose no risk to public safety, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, and would do fine with less intensive oversight, such as electronic monitoring. On top of that, federal halfway houses are so underfunded that even inmates who are eligible for immediate release can’t go anywhere, because there aren’t enough beds available.
The biggest problem with the First Step Act, however, isn’t what’s in it; it’s what’s left out. Specifically, sentencing reform. Harsh sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s, like mandatory minimums of 10 or 20 years even for low-level drug crimes, have been among the main drivers of the nation’s exploding prison population.
If the states’ experience has demonstrated anything, it’s that effective justice reform can’t happen without addressing both ends of the problem at once — not simply helping the people now behind bars, but limiting how many get locked up in the first place.
Even once-skeptical lawmakers have come to appreciate this fact. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wrote in an op-ed on Fox News that it was “naive and unproductive” to focus only on so-called “back-end” reforms like good-time credits, and ignore the punitive sentencing laws that continue to fill the nation’s prisons. “There will never be enough funding for back-end prison reform programs as long as there is a steady stream of new inmates with lengthy sentences disproportionate to their crimes,” Grassley wrote.
Grassley is sponsoring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would reduce the harshest sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and give judges more discretion to issue lighter sentences. The bill nearly passed Congress in 2016, only to be killed by then-Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Sessions has continued to bad-mouth sentencing reform as attorney general, leading Grassley to suggest that if he “wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama.”
Grassley’s bill has the support of top senators of both parties, as well as law-enforcement leaders and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil-rights organizations. It’s not perfect, but it’s far preferable to the First Step Act, which could get a vote in the House as soon as this week.
Meanwhile, liberal backers of the First Step Act, like Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who is sponsoring the bill, argue that it’s better than nothing, especially in the current political environment. “We have a Republican president. Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate,” Jeffries wrote in a letter to his colleagues on Friday. “Those are the facts.”
He’s right. And yet a partial bill could end up being worse than nothing, especially if its benefits don’t live up to expectations, and if Congress, which has many other pressing matters to attend to, decides it’s had enough of the topic.
“Get a bill to my desk,” Trump said Friday. “I will sign it.” If he means this, and if he genuinely cares about reforming the federal justice system, he’ll demand a bill that addresses the system’s most pressing problems.
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