Ethics & Religion
December 20, 2018
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
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
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, President of Marriage Savers and
a syndicated columnist. To read past columns, go to
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