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  2. Criminal Justice

Prison Reform: Not Enough to Seriously Address Mass Incarceration

By José Santos Woss, June 11, 2018


The House passed prison reform without reductions to mandatory minimum sentences that have incarcerated millions; some for decades.

Criminal justice reform is not about politics or pieces we can eject from the conversation to achieve a legislative goal. Criminal justice has been devastating the lives of millions. Any solutions should be cognizant of the facts on the ground.

A recent WBEZ story about Chicago’s William Penn Elementary school looks at public schools and challenges to succeeding in the inner city. We meet a fourth grader whose joy and Light is refreshing. We also learn that this little boy has two incarcerated parents. There’s also a mention that at nine years old he’s already witnessed a murder. At nine, he’s lived more than some people five times his age.

Mass incarceration isn’t limited to discussions on Capitol Hill. There’s a constellation of societal problems that undergird it. Mass incarceration is a system built on poverty; criminalization of thousands of black, brown, and poor people; and it is built on unequal and excessive enforcement. This is compounded by poverty and sometimes violence. The brokenness of our criminal justice system involves many more problems but even this brief summary, a necessary context, is so often missing from policy makers’ minds.

The House has recently passed the FIRST STEP Act. It involves many of the components of the Prison Reform and Redemption Act we previously worked on to pair with sentencing reform. It is refreshing and welcome to see Congress act on criminal justice reform. However, the solution proposed seems to be removed from the problem because of how little of the problem it addresses. Not only does the FIRST STEP Act ignore the problem but it also ignores the ways that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in the Department of Justice is ill-equipped to handle its current inadequate programming let alone add new programming to meet the aims of the FIRST STEP Act.

Positive elements of the FIRST STEP Act:

  • Includes the Grace Act to fix the inadequate use of compassionate release resulting in help for the elderly and infirm prisoners applying for early release;

  • Prohibits the shackling of pregnant mothers –unless a person is deemed a flight-risk or danger to self;

  • Requires that prisoners be placed within 500 driving-miles of family;

  • Eliminates an error in implementation of the good time credits to add an additional 7 days a year of “early release” time off prison sentences;

  • Helps secure driver’s licenses, photo IDs, and birth certificates for returning citizens

  • Free provision of feminine hygiene products if a warden deems there is a need in their facility

Negative elements of the FIRST STEP Act:

  • It does nothing to reduce the unfair and excessive mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes—the primary driver of mass incarceration;

  • Contains a long list of exemptions barring many needy prisoners from rehabilitation programs;

  • It reserves Federal Prison Industries work jobs for low and medium risk offenders;

  • The warden exercises wide discretion over the provision of good time credits and programming, likely shutting out even more from prison programming;

  • The BOP has been overwhelmed at the same time they have been cutting services and staff—nurses have even had to take on the role of prison guards;

  • Considering the worsening prison sentences, burgeoning prison population, and cuts to BOP under Attorney General Sessions, the programming in FIRST STEP is virtually impossible to implement

  • The bill authorizes $50 million per year for five years but proponents have not secured or made progress towards achieving real funding through appropriations

We continue to make clear to policy makers the severity of mass incarceration. We also need to continue making clear that mandatory minimum sentences are the core of the problem and real solutions must tackle mandatory minimum sentences. We were pleased to see the Congressional Black Caucus, the conscience of the Congress, introduce the Jobs and Justice Act of 2018. We contributed content to this omnibus bill. The bill is a comprehensive solution to the economic issues and injustice that exist in many sectors of the United States. It would make federal elections take place on federal holidays; invest in school infrastructure; eliminate mandatory minimums for drug crimes; eliminates the collateral bans on SNAP, TANF, and Pell Grants; and other elements. This comprehensive bill may become law in smaller pieces in future congresses.

Politically driven solutions will not move us closer to ending mass incarceration and securing justice for thousands sitting in cages. The gravity of the problem and scope require a comprehensive solution reducing sentences and reinvesting those funds towards rehabilitation programming.

We need real solutions that consider the root cause of the devastation taking place in many black, brown, and poor communities across the country. Please urge your Senators to cosponsor the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act S.1917 as negotiations move forward in the Senate.

José Santos Woss

  • Legislative Manager, Criminal Justice and Election Integrity

José is the Legislative Manager for Criminal Justice and Election Integrity. He leads FCNL’s work on criminal justice reform, campaign finance reform (election integrity), and police militarization. He co-Chairs the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, an alliance of more than 40 national faith groups advocating to end mass incarceration.