- Criminal Justice
Behind The Scenes, Work Continues on Criminal Justice Reform
What Congress is doing – and needs to do – on criminal and juvenile justice.
FCNL is working as hard as ever to end mass incarceration. You might see less talk about it on the news or in Congress, but we know that criminal justice reform is still crucial.
The U.S. incarcerates over 25% of the world’s prisoners while we have only 5% of the world’s population. 60% of U.S. prisoners are people of color while only 36% of Americans are people of color. Families, communities, and society at large bear the emotional and financial costs of incarceration.
Here are the issues we’re focused on right now and some key bills to watch out for. Every single reform proposal listed has bipartisan sponsorship and support:
Sentencing and Prison Reform
Sponsors of the Senate Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (IA), have announced a plan to re-introduce the bill soon. FCNL’s lobbyists, Advocacy Corps, and Annual Meeting attendees supported SRCA last Congress because of its sections lowering mandatory minimum sentences and increasing judges’ discretion to individually decide fairer sentencing. These sentencing reductions will help lower the massive U.S. prison population. In the House, Reps. Doug Collins (GA) and Hakeem Jeffries (NY) have already introduced a new version of the Corrections and Recidivism Reduction Act as HR 3356 Prison Reform and Redemption Act (PRRA). PRRA would open up opportunities for federal prisoners to earn “time credits,” which would shorten their sentences or allow them to spend more of their sentences in custody programs outside of the prison. FCNL supports this prison reform paired with sentencing reductions to truly reduce our prison population.
Full scale, comprehensive sentencing and prison reform is what will make a difference to communities hurt by mass incarceration. We encourage Chairman Goodlatte (VA) to re-introduce last Congress’s H.R.3713 Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 without weakening the proposed reductions in mandatory minimums. Together, sentencing and prison bills in the House will allow Congress to move forward on bipartisan criminal justice reform.
Rep. Jason Lewis (MN) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (IA) have successfully passed bills in the House and Senate reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The reauthorization has not been signed into law yet because there are slight differences between the two versions. JJDPA provides grants and standards to states for more rehabilitative, less punitive juvenile justice practices. It protects youth from confinement with adults, directs states to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, and incentivizes evidence-based programs that reduce recidivism. The House bill has another crucial benefit: it would eliminate the Valid Court Order exception over the next three years. As is, the VCO exception allows judges to detain juveniles for minor offenses (running away, violating curfew, underage alcohol and tobacco violations) even though detention hurts child development and wastes money in these cases. The bottom line is that this bill would disrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline” and the “abuse-to-prison pipeline,” which harm children of color, girls, and black girls in particular.
With 600,000 people leaving prison each year, we need re-entry initiatives that set formerly incarcerated people up for success. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (WI) has introduced HR 2899 Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2017, and Sen. Rob Portman (OH) plans to reintroduce his Senate counterpart soon. The Second Chance Act authorizes grants to state and local re-entry programs. Since it passed in 2008, it has supported over 700 programs to improve lives and reduce recidivism for returning citizens. This Act would reauthorize Second Chance Act programs to continue for five more years.
“Police militarization” is not a figure of speech. The U.S. military has transferred over $6 billion worth of property to local police departments since the 1033 Program started in 1997. This program needs to be ended or seriously limited because law enforcement agencies already engage in far too much violence, especially against communities of color. Compared to whites, Native Americans are 3.1 times more likely to be killed by police and African Americans are 2.8 times more likely. President Obama issued an executive order in 2015 limiting the transfer of certain equipment types and increasing oversight, but this summer the Trump administration rescinded that order. This was after the Government Accountability Office posed as a fake police department with the address of an empty parking lot and was able to secure $1.2 million in equipment. The GAO director who worked on the operation described the process as being so simple that “it was like getting stuff off of eBay.”
This week, Sen. Rand Paul (KY) introduced the Stop Militarizing Our Law Enforcement Act (SMLA) to counter police violence. SMLA would increase transparency and oversight into equipment transfers and ban the transfer of offensive equipment like Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. As Sen. Paul has explained, the ban would not apply to defensive equipment including body armor. With over 18,000 locally controlled law enforcement agencies in the country, this bill is an important national tool to manage police equipment.
We thank all of these members of Congress for putting criminal justice solutions forward. These members and their colleagues need to hear from you to propel criminal justice reform forward in this Congress. With so many competing priorities in Congress and hostile rhetoric from the White House and Department of Justice, it’s critical that we keep criminal justice reform, and specifically sentencing reform, a priority. Over the past several years, research and state innovations have shown what works: shorter sentences, alternatives to incarceration and juvenile detention, and opportunities to re-enter society. The politics may have shifted but the reality of mass incarceration remains. Congress needs to act on criminal justice reform.