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Ethics & Religion
Column #1,948
December 20, 2018
Senate Reforms Criminal Justice
By Mike McManus

By a decisive and rare 87-12 vote the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping prison reform bill this week, voting to cut sentences of tens of thousands of inmates while also boosting their access to programs before their release designed to make them more successful in the world - and thus keep them from returning back behind bars.

Dozens of Republicans, including longtime holdout Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined all 49 Democratic Senators to pass the law that will reduce prison sentences and save billions while giving inmates both the training and the opportunity for new lives outside.

An earlier version passed the House, so a major bipartisan law will be enacted soon.

President Trump asserted the law would "keep our communities safer and provide hope and a second chance to those who earn it." He added, "In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this bill into law."

Trump asserted the reform is "a much-needed first step toward shifting our focus to rehabilitation and reentry of offenders, rather than taking every person who ever made a mistake with drugs, locking them up, and throwing away the key."

What is called "The First Step Act" makes substantial investments in a package intended to improve prison conditions and allow low-risk prisoners to earn credits toward early release. By participating in the programs, eligible prisoners can earn time credits to reduce their sentence or enter "prerelease custody," such as home confinements.

GOP lawmakers argued for rehabilitating some offenders rather than convict them to long term incarcerations. Among the changes the new bill will put in place is reducing the "three strikes" penalty for drug felonies from life behind bars to a maximum of 25 years.

It would also limit the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine offenses. That would impact about 2,000 current federal inmates.

The new law also overhauls the federal prison system to help inmates earn reduced sentences and lower recidivism rates.

Through the reduction in sentencing, the law will do the equivalent of shaving a collective 53,000 years off the sentences of federal prisoners over the next 10 years.

It should be noted that the U.S. prison population of 817 prisoners per 100,000 population is the highest in the world. It is much higher than the 556 Russians per 100,000 and triple Mexico's 256.

Therefore, the Senate's "First Step Act" is most welcome - and belated. It is modeled on several successful initiatives at the state level designed to reduce costs and improve the outcomes of those in the criminal justice system.

Broadly speaking, the bill makes substantial investments in a package of incentives and new programs to improve prison conditions and better prepare low-risk prisoners to re-enter their communities.

The legislation includes changes to federal sentencing laws. One would shorten mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses.

Second, judges would have the freedom to use so-called safety valves to go around mandatory minimums in some cases.

Democrats have been pushing for such a bill since the Obama years. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Cal) called the new measure a "compromise of a compromise. We ultimately need to make far greater reforms if we are to right the wrongs that exist in our criminal justice system."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) called the bill "perhaps the most significant bill to reform our criminal justice system in a decade."

"The First Step Act takes modest but important steps to remedy some of the most troubling injustices within our sentencing laws and our prison system," Leahy asserted. "It is my hope that this bill represents not just a single piece of legislation, but a turning point in how Congress views its role in advancing criminal justice."

The bill is focused only on those in federal prisons, where there were 189,200 inmates in
2016. It does not affect the much larger prison population of 1,318,000 in state prisons.

However, this initiative sets an important example that every state should consider of offering drug offenders a path back to the community - while saving billions for taxpayers.

It is very rare - if not unprecedented - for the Federal Government to take an initiative that could be an example to the states.

Copyright (c) 2018 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to Hit Search for any topic.


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