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A first step toward prison reform

The current lame-duck session of Congress provides an optimum time to pass sensible changes in federal prison law and show Americans that bipartisan legislation is still possible.

Marc Lester /Anchorage Daily News via AP
Prisoner Anthony Garcia leads a weekly discussion on morals and ethics at the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, Alaska. 'I've come to a certain point in time where I have something to teach the youngsters,' Garcia says.

The conflicted emotions of Americans about issues of crime and punishment are reflected in the nation’s criminal justice system. 

Americans want to feel safe and to know that those who have shown they are a threat to society are securely locked away. But Americans also support the idea of equal justice for everyone under the law and a willingness to give second chances to those who admit their mistakes and show that they sincerely want to change course and become constructive members of society.

A “First Step Act” now faces potential action in the US Senate before the end of the current lame-duck session. The bill seems to have carefully weighed this range of sentiments on crime and offers modest, practical reforms. 

Among its provisions, it opens up avenues for those in federal prisons to more easily obtain education and training that could increase the likelihood that they lead crime-free lives after release. It also would take a small step toward cutting the immense cost of the nation’s massive prison system and remove an inequity in prison sentencing.

A somewhat different version of the bill passed the House earlier this year by a wide margin, 360 to 59, earning broad bipartisan support.

The Senate version would likely gain similar backing from both Republicans and Democrats if it reaches a vote. President Trump has signaled he would sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.

Under the proposed law, federal prisoners who participate in programs aimed at helping them stay out of prison after their release, including educational and training programs, could cut days off of their sentence. Judges would also have more discretion in setting sentences of nonviolent drug offenders. 

Those imprisoned for crimes involving crack cocaine would receive sentences in line with those whose crimes involved powder cocaine, and sentences would be readjusted back to 2010. Crack cocaine crimes, more prevalent in African-American communities, have received harsher penalties than powder cocaine crimes, more prevalent white areas.

Better efforts would be made to make sure prisoners are located within 500 miles of family members. (Family support has been shown to be important in preventing recidivism.) And authorities in federal prisons would not be allowed to shackle pregnant women inmates with chains while they are in labor giving birth.

The bill might be called the “baby steps act” since it would affect only some of the inmates housed in federal prisons. The vast majority of inmates are in state prisons, which would not be affected by the legislation.

Some states have begun reform measures of their own in recent years, but most have not. A federal action, though modest in scope, might provide a powerful example that causes more states to act.

Among the senators supporting the bill is Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota, who has called it “an effective balance between keeping our communities safe and ensuring the fair administration of justice.” It has also won support from major police organizations “because they know this legislation keeps significant penalties in place for violent offenders,” Senator Klobuchar says.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, a cosponsor of the bill, points out that the last days of the current Congress provide the optimum moment for passage. In January, the new Congress will feature a Democratic majority in the House, which will bring with it a long list of new priorities. It might wish to alter or add to the bill in ways that would prevent passage in the Republican-held Senate.

The “First Step Act” would also provide a welcome up note for the end of year, taking a little of the sting out of an era of hyperpartisan politics by proving that working across party lines is still possible.

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