Federal prison reform bill endorsed by President Trump
Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Inside and outside criminal justice circles it’s understood that the U.S. prison system, including state-run, private, and immigration detention facilities, needs restructuring. The overcrowding of jail and prison facilities alone has led to massive health problems and social conflicts, which can lead to increased inmate deaths.
Draconian drug laws implemented during the peak War on Drugs years have people serving time for possession of relatively small amounts of illegal substances, including innocuous marijuana.
In its effort to financially exploit fears of crime, the prison boom cast a net too wide and caught too many people in it. Now we are seeing the reaction, as the bipartisan First Step Act was passed by the House, recently publicly endorsed by President Trump, and is now in the Senate.
The bill, which is still being drafted in the Senate, supports decreasing sentencing laws. "The bill, endorsed by President Trump, makes shorter sentences for crack cocaine retroactive for a few thousand inmates. It increases the number of people eligible to sidestep mandatory minimum sentences, but only by a nudge. And it reduces the three-strikes penalty from life to a still-lengthy 25 years," wrote The New York Times.
While that all sounds well and good, it’s the federal system that will be impacted. That’s only 183,000 people compared to 1.5 million people incarcerated. Thousands could be impacted by this effort to rectify the harm done to communities of color most affected by harsh drug sentencing.
One welcome provision eliminates the shackling of pregnant inmates, who even give birth in shackles. Who can argue with that effort to eliminate this blatantly cruel and inhuman punishment?
We can go back and forth about whether Democrats should hold out for more reforms or strike when the iron’s hot.
Since the War on Drugs started, and was cemented by President Clinton’s Crime Bill in 1994, politicians have used "crime" and "drugs" as pre-packaged and empty rallying points. Both Democrats and Republicans fomented the prison industrial complex buildup, embracing some of the most socially disastrous policies as if they were no-brainer solutions to what ails us. This is why it will take bipartisan cooperation to undo the damage.
President Trump’s enthusiastic support for this new package is a prime example of a mixed message. By no means could one forget the hysterical anti-crime tone of Trump’s campaign. He routinely cites crimes committed by non-U.S. residents to incite fear and anxiety about illegal immigration.
Now, in a surprising turn to many, President Trump shows support for the First Step Act? What gives? This might all come down to appearances and compromise for Trump. The Trump administration has come under fire for its detention and deportation practices — especially jarring is the separation of children from their families. Fanfare about a prison reform bill diverts attention from Trump’s systematic attack on immigrant families.
But diversions aside, there’s such an overwhelming desire to change the criminal justice system, as we witnessed with last fall’s National Prison Strike.
This legislation could function as a sinkhole for more substantive changes. Alec Karakatsani, executive director of Civil Rights Corps, warns that this legislation may confuse the greater prison reform process. "Creating confusion over what’s significant reform and what isn’t, allowing them to portray minor improvements as major victories, enables them to preserve all of the key pieces of an infrastructure of mass human caging while making the public think they’re dismantling it," he stated.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this conundrum is the shackling of pregnant prisoners. Sure, it’s great to eliminate the practice when possible, but endorsing the First Step Act generally preserves the shackling practice.
Many who have worked on prison reform measures throughout the arduous decades of mandatory sentencing and three strikes know the high stakes in the prison legislation game. Families have been waiting for loved ones to be released, plain and simple. While this package will enhance that process for some, there are so many other seemingly insurmountable prison problems.
Most problematic is the commitment officials have to maintaining dehumanizing environments that are unnecessarily punitive, unsafe, unhealthy, and outright abusive. It’s these conditions that have made the U.S. prison system so notorious worldwide.
It's complicated when immediate relief of harsh conditions is urgent. We still have to question the logic of some of the reforms. Shackling of female inmates will be held off until after they have recovered from childbirth.
Who defines recovery periods? Female inmates, most of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, don’t need shackling, do they? Under First Step, inmates will not be housed further than 500 miles from their families, to ensure smoother visitation. Really? 500 miles is an average of 8 hours by car: an improvement, but how much of one?
Real prison reformers are placed between a rock and a hard place here. But it's largely out of the public’s hands as we await more debate and then ink to dry on the bill.
Some law enforcement organizations have opposed the Act, since it could release those committing "violent gun crimes, fentanyl traffickers, violent sex offenders, and single-time child pornography offenders." This opposition further complicates this debate, as prison reformers expect an uphill battle for improvements either way.
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