Wednesday, 17 Jul 2024

Just How Much of an Overhaul Is This Overhaul of the Nation’s Criminal Justice System?

Some of those seeking to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system want to cut the prison population by more than a million inmates. An agreement in Washington this week, hailed as a landmark bipartisan moment, falls well short of that: about 7,000 people might get out early.

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.

The proposed legislation is very much a compromise, one that, at least in the short term, will do little to solve the country’s mass incarceration problem. Its name, the First Step Act, is apt as its sponsors consider it an initial attempt at reform.

To many advocates, releasing 7,000 inmates — less than 4 percent of the federal inmate population — is unacceptably low given the huge number of people imprisoned in the United States compared to other countries. But even freeing that many people early has been used by some opponents to try to scare lawmakers into voting no, said Holly Harris, the executive director of U.S. Justice Action Network and a former general counsel for the Kentucky Republican Party.

“How expansive the bill is is in the eye of the beholder,” she said. “This is not the end of the road, but this is as much as we can get done this year.”

In announcing the agreement, Mr. Trump focused on the part providing inmates with more education, job training and addiction treatment. It would also allow for inmates to be placed closer to their families, because strong family ties have been shown to reduce recidivism.

Mr. Trump, who ran on a law-and-order platform that included frequent mentions of threats posed by violent immigrants and gang members, played down the bill’s already modest mercies. “The bill includes reasonable sentencing reforms while keeping dangerous and violent criminals off our streets,” he said. “In many respects we’re getting very much tougher on the truly bad criminals, which unfortunately there are many, but we’re treating people differently for different crimes.”

The proposal was the administration’s answer to a broader bipartisan bill championed by Senators Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, and Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois. It was presented as a prison reform bill that would make it easier for inmates to re-enter society. It did not include any of the Grassley bill’s sentencing changes.

Advocates disagreed on whether the bipartisan bill was a good initial step or a cop out. After the midterms and the departure of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who opposed sentencing reforms, a limited version of the sentencing provisions were added.

The agreement that is now embraced by lawmakers of both parties would apply only to the federal prison system, which houses less than 10 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million inmates. It includes one provision to address an issue that has been contentious for years, since the era when a mandatory minimum sentence would apply to a far smaller amount of crack cocaine than powder cocaine.

The disparity, now widely viewed as racially discriminatory, was significantly reduced in 2010, but the change was not made retroactive, so between 2,500 and 3,000 people remain in prison on sentences that would have been much lower today.

The bill would change the system going forward, with more than 2,000 people a year potentially able to avoid mandatory minimum sentences, out of some 60,000 admitted to federal prison each year.

Some provisions, such as one that clarifies that prisoners are allowed to earn 54 days of credit off their sentence for good behavior each year instead of 47 days, would provide a small benefit to a large number of people.

Others would give a large benefit to a very small number of people. The bill would end the practice of counting gun offenses for which the person has not yet been convicted as priors that could add 25 years to a sentence.

Support for overhauling the criminal justice system has grown in recent years because the nation has incarcerated far more people than any other country in the world, while crime has been on the decline for more than two decades. Evidence has mounted showing that the country’s sprawling system of punishment was counterproductive, resulting in high recidivism rates. Studies showed that even brief stays in jail disrupt people’s lives and make them more likely to commit crime. And many states realized that without substantive change they would be spending an ever-greater portion of their budgets on prisons.

In response came a long list of proposals from both the left and the right. People who do not need to be in prison should be released by giving them shorter sentences, monitoring them at home or simply leaving them alone, advocates said. Since the prison system is full of people with mental illness and addiction, treatment was a smarter option than incarceration, they said. Some called for changes at the front end, limiting the number of criminal offenses, reducing the power of prosecutors, or beefing up the public defender system and giving defense lawyers more resources to fight cases. Others called for abolishing prisons altogether.

Few of these ideas figure in the new bill. But many families say even modest reform will improve a deeply flawed system.

“One day makes a difference because you don’t know what that one day can bring about in a person’s life,” said Stephanie Nodd, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for her brief participation in a crack cocaine ring. She was released in 2011, after serving more than 21 years, when a federal judge agreed to revisit her sentence.

Ms. Nodd was especially supportive of a provision that would ban prison officials from restraining pregnant women. She had given birth while shackled.

“It should have been done years ago because you can’t imagine a woman being pregnant and giving birth in shackles,” she said, recalling how she had been handcuffed in an ambulance. “Having experienced that, I don’t want any other woman to go through it. It’s horrible.”

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