Criminal Justice Reform Bill

The First Step Act was passed with bi-partisan support in the U.S. Senate and now goes to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass. The President has indicated he will sign it.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley played an important role in passing the First Step Act.

The bill is urgently needed. We are years into an incarceration crisis that was exacerbated by the “war on drugs”, which mandated years of incarceration for nonviolent and drug-related crimes.

People of color have been, and continue to be targeted. Where 1 in 87 white men are incarcerated, the numbers are 1 in 36 Hispanic men, and 1 in 12 African American men.

“The act would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for a number of drug-related crimes, allow judges to circumvent federal mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders when they see fit, expand rehabilitative opportunities for federal prisoners, and ban some correctional practices criticized as inhumane, such as the shackling of pregnant women. The act would give elderly and terminally ill inmates a path home and invest tens of millions in re-entry programming.

The act would end so-called “three strikes” mandatory life sentences for defendants facing a third drug conviction, except for those with a prior “serious violent felony”. The “stacking” regulations that make it illegal to posses a firearm while committing a crime, even if the firearm is not used, would also no longer come into play.” Criminal justice reform bill passed by Senate in rare bipartisan victory, The Guardian, Dec 19, 2018

But almost everyone agrees this is only the first step. This legislation only pertains to Federal prisons, which contain only 10% of the incarcerated population.

Other concerns are covered in an article in the Washington Post today, “Is this really the best we can do for criminal-justice reform?” by DeAnna R. Hoskins, who is president and chief executive of JustLeadershipUSA, a criminal-justice reform advocacy group. Following are some of the concerns expressed in that article.

“First, the bill opens the door for a greater reliance on correctional control with electronic monitoring that would disproportionately affect black and brown people as well as immigrants. This “e-carceration” threatens to invade the privacy of people released under supervision and could lower the threshold for reincarceration. In promoting this technology, the legislation also creates new opportunities for companies to profit from the expansion of these practices. GEO Group and CoreCivic, two of the country’s largest detention companies, are urging the Senate to pass this legislation, but that’s probably because they can directly profit from this greater reliance on community correctional control.

Second, the bill’s development and implementation of a risk-assessment tool sets a dangerous precedent for how we perceive and treat people before, during and after incarceration. Risk-assessment instruments draw upon a number of static and dynamic factors in a person’s life to determine their level of “risk” to commit a new crime or pose a threat to public safety. We must shift the narrative from one of “risk” to one of “needs” and recognize that in far too many cases, poverty and systemic barriers to economic opportunity and basic necessities drive the conditions that perpetuate the revolving door of incarceration for many in this country.

This may be a “first step,” but in many ways, it is a step in the wrong direction. A better step would be toward building a system that focuses on rehabilitation, reconciliation and dignity.

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