Editorial: Federal and state prison reforms long overdue

Fortunately, there’s also a lot that Congress and the state Legislature can do right now

There’s a lot wrong with how we deal with criminals in our state and federal prison systems.

Fortunately, there’s also a lot that Congress and the state Legislature can do right now to create a fairer, less expensive and safer incarceration system for the public.

Let’s start with Congress, where Republicans control both chambers for the next month, after which Democrats will take over the House of Representatives.

A bipartisan piece of reform legislation known as the First Step Act would reform sentencing and release guidelines in the federal prison system.

One version of the legislation was approved by the House in May by a vote of 360-59. That means 134 Democrats went along with the Republican House majority, a major bipartisan achievement.

A compromise version of the bill now under consideration includes new funding for anti-recidivism programs meant to discourage released prisoners from repeating their crimes and to help them transition back into society. It also includes an expansion of early-release credits for inmates in certain crimes to allow a shorter time to release, and a reduction in some mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders, according to The New York Times. The bill, according to CNN, also would eliminate “stacking” provisions to prevent suspects from serving consecutive sentences for certain crimes, and it would reduce the “three-strikes” sentence from life imprisonment to a 25-year minimum.

The bill wouldn’t affect a significant number of prisoners in federal prisons, maybe 5,000 a year (and none in state prisons). And it wouldn’t have a significant immediate savings on the federal budget. But it would nonetheless represent a solid first step forward, as the bill’s name implies, and perhaps encourage more bipartisan support for future criminal justice reforms.

Among the supporters of the bill is the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest law enforcement organization in the country. That support, along with support from some tough-on-crime conservatives, should assuage any fears being promoted by opponents of the legislation that it would make our streets more dangerous by reintroducing more hard criminals into society and letting dangerous criminals off with light sentences. This legislation would do no such thing.

President Donald Trump is pushing the Senate to pass the legislation before the end of the year, even though it doesn’t go as far as some prison reform proponents would like.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is balking, suggesting he’s got more important legislation to work on and might not have the votes for passage anyway.

The president is right on this one.

Yeah, we said it: Trump is right.

No legislation solves all problems in one fell swoop, and this bill falls in that category. But just because a bill doesn’t do everything everyone wants it to do doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be passed. McConnell should encourage his GOP members to get behind this bill now, get these necessary reforms in motion right away, and pledge to work on other criminal justice reforms under the new Congress.

On the state level, lawmakers have proposed various degrees of reform over the past few years that also would improve fairness in the criminal justice system, particularly for indigent defendants, assist inmates in the transition back into society, reduce recidivism and reduce the prison population.

Some of those reforms have been held up by a state Senate controlled by Republicans. That won’t be an issue after Jan. 1, when Democrats take control of both houses of the Legislature, in addition to already holding the governorship.

We’ve supported a number of these reforms, including a wholesale reform of the cash bail system, which indiscriminately punishes poor criminal suspects simply because they don’t have enough money to post even modest bail. One proposed bill (A137A) would eliminate cash bail for certain minor crimes, give judges the discretion on other charges to impose alternative release conditions (such as electronic monitoring and travel restrictions) to ensure suspects show up for court, and maintain tough restrictions on cash bail for the most serious crimes.

Another bill (A3080B) would reduce solitary confinement, which has proven to have serious psychological impacts on inmates, particularly younger and mentally challenged inmates. It also has proven to be counterproductive in reducing prison violence and recidivism, and it’s been overused as punishment for minor infractions. The state needs legislation to reduce the amount of time inmates spend in solitary confinement and restrict the types of circumstances in which inmates can be sent there.

Other reform legislation (A9787) would make certain portions of grand jury proceedings available to the public when it’s in the interests of the citizens to have that information. Another bill (A4879) would attempt to reduce discrimination in the criminal justice system by requiring police agencies to adopt strict rules against the use of racial and ethnic profiling.

These are just some examples of the types of legislation being considered at the state and federal level that would improve our incarceration system.

Lawmakers in Congress and the state Legislature need to introduce and debate more such legislation and make passage of legitimate reforms a top priority.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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