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Criminal Justice Reform: Prosecution, Incarceration, and Prisoner Reentry into Society

Author: Congressional Digest

Criminal Justice Reform

Prosecution, Incarceration, and Prisoner Reentry into Society

“He who decides a case without

hearing the other side . . .

Tho he decide





just.” — Seneca







The United States incarcerates more people than any other country. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2.3 million people are currently in Federal, State, or local prisons and jails. Close to 7 million Amer-ican adults are in the correctional system, including those on parole or probation or in jail.

Overall, since the 1980s, the Federal prison popula-tion — the number of inmates under the supervision of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) — has experienced explo-sive growth, increasing by approximately 5,900 inmates annually. Some of this growth is attributable to changes in Federal criminal justice policy. These include increas-ing the number of Federal offenses subject to mandatory minimum sentences, making more crimes Federal offenses, and eliminating parole for Federal defendants.

The “War on Drugs,” which started under President Richard Nixon and expanded under President Ronald Reagan, led to a surge in incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses and created racial disparities in arrest, pros-ecution, and incarceration rates.

There are signs that the country has turned the corner on mass incarceration, however. From 2007 to 2016, the proportion of the adult population under the supervision of U.S. correctional authorities decreased by 18 percent

— mostly due to the decrease in violent crime and re-ductions in sentences for drug-related offenses. In 2010,

Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which scaled back mandatory sentences for crack cocaine offenses.

To build on that trend, the 115th Congress has been considering sweeping changes to the Federal criminal justice system. In May 2018, by a vote of 360 to 59, the House passed legislation called the FIRST STEP Act.

The bill would provide $50 million annually to the

BOP over the next five years for education, vocational training, and mental health treatment for those in Federal prison. It would allow prisoners to earn time credits for completing programs and then use those credits to serve the remainder of their sentences in a halfway house or

home confinement. The bill also requires inmates to be housed within 500 miles of their families and prohibits the shackling of female inmates while they are pregnant, giving birth, or in postpartum recovery. A new Risk and Needs Assessment System would assess individual pris-oners to determine which recidivism reduction programs they should participate in.

At a White House summit on prison reform, President

Trump called on Members to pass the bill. During the House floor debate that followed, supporters called the legislation a practical, focused approach to rehabilitation that will help prisoners become productive members of society and make them less likely to become repeat of-fenders. They contended that, although the bill may not go as far as some would like, it is, in fact, a “first step” toward comprehensive reform that will reduce the prison population while improving lives.

Opponents’ main objection to the bill was that it failed to address sentencing reform and could, in fact, exacer-bate racial biases in the system. They also charged that it would be hard to implement certain provisions because of the underfunding of halfway houses and cuts in the numbers of corrections officers. Others say the measure has been pushed through Congress without adequate re-view and that it could result in the early release of drug dealers and violent citizens.

Meanwhile, Senator Charles Grassley (IA-R), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced, with Senator

Dick Durbin (IL-D), a criminal justice reform bill that reduces mandatory minimum prison sentences. Revised in mid-December to gain the support of wavering senators, it creates an Independent Review Committee to oversee the risk assessment tools, and adds to the list of offenses that would disqualify prisoners from serving the remainder of their sentence in a halfway house or home confinement.

At the eleventh hour, just days before the current Con-gress was set to adjourn, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY-R) agreed to bring Grassley’s bill to the floor. Given the measure’s broad bipartisan support, it now stands a good chance of passing this year. Even if it doesn’t, given the size and cost of prison populations, as well as inequities in the system, reform is sure to remain a priority for lawmakers going forward. n

2Congressional Digest n n January 2019

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DMU Timestamp: February 07, 2020 23:04

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