Criminal Justice Reform’s Time May Be Near

In these contentious partisan times, one legislative objective has been embraced by most members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle, and joining in the embrace last week was President Trump.

The objective is criminal justice and prison reform, and the proposed plan circulating in the Senate now is modeled on the FIRST STEP Act that overwhelmingly passed the House in May.

The current iteration of the bill would roll back some of the overly harsh measures taken by the government during the 1980s and 1990s in a “tough on crime” reaction to high crime rates, and help prepare incarcerated Americans for life after release from prison.

In its present form, the criminal justice reform legislation, among other things, directs the federal Bureau of Prisons to assess which inmates should earn credits toward completing their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement, broadens employment opportunities for inmates and expands compassionate release programs for the terminally ill. Credits are earned by inmates who participate in various constructive programs, including “substance abuse treatment,” “vocational training,” “classes on morals or ethics” and “faith-based classes or services.”

It also would change some of the existing harsh penalties for low-level, non-violent drug offenders, like mandatory minimum sentences, and do away with the “three strike” provision requiring mandatory life sentences for third-time drug offenders, changing the sentence to 25 years instead.

The bill has won backing from a number of law-enforcement groups.

Although it was reported months ago that President Trump, who has shown a strong “law-and-order” bent, was well inclined toward the prison reform measure, last Wednesday he publicly endorsed it, saying he was “thrilled to announce” his support for “this bipartisan bill that will make our communities safer and give former inmates a second chance at life after they have served their time.”

The fate of the bill in the Senate is unsure at present, since, as the legislation is currently written, it does not contain a broader overhaul favored by some senators who want changes to mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have kept many low-level offenders behind bars for decades.

But Senate Judiciary Committees chairman Chuck Grassley, who has pushed his own more expansive criminal justice reform bill for years, praised the current proposed FIRST STEP Act, saying that “by ensuring that punishments fit the crimes, we can better balance the scales of justice.”

Proponents of the current bill hope that the president’s full-throated haskamah will prompt Senate Republicans to act quickly, so that the bill can be passed in the Senate by year’s end, before the new Congress is seated in January.

Moshe Margaretten, an askan who has been involved in prison-reform efforts for a decade, says that the prison system, though it calls itself “corrections,” is not actually correcting anyone’s life.

“Research has shown that most offenders return to crime after their release from prison,” says Margaretten. “We want to make prisons more productive.”

Margaretten says that Texas, followed by 11 other states, initiated a program whereby inmates participate in rehabilitation activities, and are provided incentives with time credits. Inmates who participated in these programs have been returning to crime at a far lower rate after their release.

Prison reform is also a matter of pidyon shivuyim klali, says Margaretten. “There are people in our community who find themselves on the wrong side of the law, and are given sentences that legal experts have said are outrageously high. There are heartbreaking stories of fathers and husbands taken away from their families for long periods of time. This is not ‘corrections.’”

Martgaretten and his fellow askanim obtained nearly 140 signatures of former U.S. attorneys and judges supporting the prison-reform effort.

Kevin Ring, the president of FAMM, a group that pushes for criminal-justice reform, said last week after the president’s endorsement, that the bill would “keep more families together, strengthen communities, and keep crime low.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised to bring the bill to a floor vote if there are 60 votes in favor of it, but was reported over the weekend to have told the president that the legislation will likely have to wait until the new Congress is seated.

Keeping truly dangerous prisoners in jail is important. Just as important, though, is not overreacting to nonviolent and victimless crimes, which can have the effect of turning such offenders into hardened criminals. There are 2.3 million people in American prisons, more, per capita, than any other nation. Society has a responsibility to not only make distinctions among crimes regarding sentencing but to make it more likely that the imprisoned can rehabilitate themselves and live law-abiding and productive lives.

The current prison reform bill is a step in that direction, a right one.