Rethinking Prison

It hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention — at least, not compared to Twitter wars and Russian collusion claims — but Congress and the Trump Administration appear to be working hard, and making progress, on a tough topic:  prison reform.

The House of Representatives passed a prison reform bill in the spring, and the Senate is now working on its version of the legislation.  President Trump has weighed in by hosting meetings of governors and federal officials and pointing to the issue in some of his tweets.  And, in an era where it seems like Republicans and Democrats never agree on anything, the prison reform bill seems to be attracting bipartisan support.

prisonerjaildeathpenalty2The House legislation, called the First Step Act, seeks to reduce recidivism by funding education, drug treatment, and job training programs, and allowing inmates who complete programs to earn credits that would permit them to leave prison early and complete their sentences through home confinement or a stay at a halfway house.  The Senate bill would add to the House legislation by tacking mandatory minimum sentence measures.  Among the topics being addressed are changing the “three-strikes-and-you’re out” mandatory sentence for drug offenses from life in prison to 25 years, reducing the disparity in sentences given for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, and reducing the mandatory sentences imposed when a firearm is used in an offense.  Still other provisions would give judges more flexibility to depart from mandatory penalties when sentencing offenders for less serious offenses.

I’m glad Congress and the President are focused on prison reform.  Studies indicate that there are significant racial disparities in sentencing, and although the gap is closing, black men are still much more likely than white men to be imprisoned.  It seems that prison often makes inmates more violent and irredeemable.  And if you speak to a federal judge about their job, one topic they’re likely to mention is their frustration at the mandatory sentencing guidelines and the lack of discretion they currently have in recognizing special circumstances that would allow them to shape more appropriate sentences that are tailored to the individual defendant and his or her specific conduct.  All of these are important, substantive topics that need to be addressed.

One other thing:  prison and sentencing reform is politically thankless.  It’s easy for politicians to rail about crime and boast about tossing people into prison and throwing away the key; it’s a lot harder to look thoughtfully at a broken system and try to figure out how to fix it in a sensible way.  A vote for prison reform today might produce campaign ads about a Senator or Representative being “soft on crime” when the next election rolls around.  We’ll have to see whether these kinds of political considerations derail the prison and sentencing reform effort.

For now, though, I’ll give President Trump and Congress credit for stopping the name-calling, rolling up their sleeves, and actually working on a challenging issue.  If only other important issues could be addressed that way!

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