Brian Mark Weber / June 1, 2018

Pleading for Criminal Justice Reform

Backed by Trump, the House passed the First Step Act, but opposition remains entrenched.

The prison population in the United States is exploding.

But this burgeoning population isn’t merely the result of cleaning our streets of violent offenders; it’s also due to overzealous prosecutors eager to tout their toughness in America’s war on crime.

Consequently, the United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its incarcerated people, according to National Review’s Conrad Black. “The American conviction rate of nearly 99 percent, 97 percent without a trial,” says Black, is the result of a plea-bargain system that places the U.S. “in criminal-justice matters from the category of its socioeconomic and democratic peer countries and places it, in matters of criminal procedure and conviction rates, disgracefully among the totalitarian states.”

Plea-bargaining is one of the primary reasons why the prison population has risen so dramatically in recent decades. The process gives prosecutors “broad, opaque powers” according to Dylan Walsh at The Atlantic.

Walsh adds, “Judges are not regularly allowed to take part when a plea deal is made, and written records of a deal are almost never required. Though jury trials demand proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, pleas follow no standards of evidence or proof; the prosecutor offers a break in exchange for a guilty plea, the defendant decides whether to take it without knowing the merits of his case.”

Even hard-line conservatives who typically favor tougher sentencing should be concerned about the ease with which Americans are being incarcerated, especially non-violent offenders and the drug-addicted.

But what’s being done on the political front to address the issue?

Until recently, not a lot. Proposals that call for tougher sentencing or building more prisons often fail to consider the vast majority of incarcerated individuals who will one day return to society.

What’s interesting is that a leading voice for prison reform is our tough-talking president, Donald Trump, who just last week hosted a prison reform summit at the White House. (The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has also taken up the issue because his father spent a year in federal prison.)

And it looks like the proposal is picking up steam. This week, the House passed the First Step Act by a vote of 360-59. Some of its features include providing training programs for ex-inmates to reduce recidivism, allowing inmates to build “good time” credit each year, banning the shackling of pregnant inmates, allowing for the release of terminally ill patients, and requiring prisoners to be placed in facilities within a reasonable distance of their families.

“I will sign it,” said President Trump, “and it’s going to be strong, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be what everybody wants.”

The bill’s supporters are hoping that the president can use the bully pulpit to push hesitant Republican senators to take up the measure, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is at the moment reluctant due to deep divisions among party members.

Meanwhile, criminal justice advocacy groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the U.S. Justice Action Network, the Equal Justice Initiative, Koch Industries, and the American Civil Liberties Union are divided over the First Step Act for reasons ranging from potentially discriminatory practices to the lack of halfway houses for inmates to make the transition back into their communities.

Highlighting the division over prison reform, Reason’s C.J. Ciaramella writes, “Democrats are split on it, old-school conservatives are drumming up opposition from law enforcement groups, and progressive advocacy groups are attacking it from the left. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Republican pointman on criminal justice reform, says the bill is dead in the water unless it includes major reforms to federal sentencing law as well.”

To his credit, Grassley has successfully recruited 13 Republicans to join the bipartisan effort. Yet despite the promising efforts of House members on Capitol Hill, the future of the bill doesn’t look promising. And that’s unacceptable.

Politicians have long ignored this complex issue, often seeking a quick fix to appease their own interest groups. And while Republicans need to realize that aggressive sentencing is not appropriate in all situations, or good for society in the long-term, Democrats need to stop looking at ex-cons merely as potential voters (yes, then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe did unilaterally restore voting rights to 200,000 felons before the 2016 presidential election).

Of course, the most serious offenders should receive harsh sentences and should be locked up long-term. But those who’ll eventually leave prison to again become our co-workers and neighbors need a system that prepares them for life as productive citizens in a free society rather than creating a revolving door of convicts. Our society will be safer for it, and we can spend less money on incarceration.

Reforming the plea bargain process, revisiting mandatory sentencing laws, and even admitting that the Drug War has failed are all steps in the right direction.

In the end, this isn’t about getting soft on crime, but recognizing the flaws in the current system. With millions of prisoners and tens of millions of felons, Republicans and Democrats need to find common ground and do what’s right. President Trump is moving the country toward a broader conversation about prison reform, and the First Step Act is truly a step in the right direction.

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