The nation is on the verge of getting the most significant federal prison reform in decades: The First Step Act.
Thanks to President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel, R-Ky, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, the bill could become law before Congress adjourns.
Assuming it becomes law, let’s see how many civil rights groups, black and white liberal Democrat politicians and the “hate Trump media” give Trump, McConnel, Ryan, and Senate and House Judiciary Committee Chairs Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., respectively, any credit for getting this historic federal prison reform bill over the goal line?
The bill, among other things, would address inequities in sentencing disparities, place inmates closer to their families, allow participation in vocational training and educational coursework all designed to assist in rehabilitation and decrease recidivism rates.
As the president said, “Our whole Nation benefits if former inmates are able to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens.”
So why is this bill needed?
Minorities, especially blacks, have long complained that the criminal justice system was two tiered — one for blacks, minorities and the poor; and, another for whites and the privileged — not unlike how the Obama Department of Justice and FBI gave special treatment to Hillary Clinton and Obama Administration operatives.
So why do we need prison reform?
According to the updated Bureau of Justice Statistics of the Department of Justice (BJS):
- About 2.5 percent of black male U.S. residents were in state or federal prison on December 31, 2016.
- Black males ages 18 to 19 were 11.8 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males of the same age.
- Black males age 65 or older were 4.4 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males age 65 or older.
- The imprisonment rate for black females was almost double that for white females.
- Among females ages 18 to 19, black females were 3.1 times more likely than white females and 2.2 times more likely than Hispanic females to be imprisoned in 2016.
- More than half (56 percent, or 6,300) of female federal prisoners were serving sentences for a drug offense, compared to 47 percent of males (75,600).
If these statistics don’t raise questions about the fairness of our criminal justice system, the most recent report of the United States Sentencing Commission — “Demographic Differences In Sentencing” —should. Consistent with its previous reports, the Commission found that “sentence length continues to be associated with some demographic factors.”
Among its key findings was that, “Black male offenders continued to receive longer sentences than similarly situated White male offenders.”
It went on to state that, “Black male offenders received sentences on average 19.1 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders” during the Report period fiscal years 2012-2016, “as they had for the prior four periods studied.”
All is not right in our criminal justice system.
The First Step Act is a good “first step” toward penal reform.
What does all of this mean in human terms?
Utah Senator Mike Lee, a conservative Republican and major supporter of the bill put it all in perspective. He recounted in a November press release the story of Weldon Angelos, a young father of two with no criminal record who was convicted of selling three dime bags of marijuana to a paid informant over a short period of time.
What was his sentence for these nonviolent crimes in which no one was hurt? 55 years!
Because Angelos had been in possession of a gun, which was neither brandished nor discharged during the transaction, the judge was forced by federal law to give him a 55-year prison sentence.
Lee went on to state that the judge explained that the applicable federal statutes gave him no authority to impose a less-severe prison term, noting that “only Congress can fix this problem.”
The First Step Act is a good beginning “fix.”
To those critics of the bill who say it will cause violent criminals to be released to prey on communities, the BJS statistics contradict that argument stating that nearly half (47 percent) of federal prisoners were there for drug offenses as of September 2016 while over half (54 percent) of state prisoners were serving sentences for violent crimes at the end of 2015.
Some argue that since, as stated in the above BJS Report, only one-eighth or 12.6 percent of the 1.5 million people in prisons, are in federal prisons, that will not have a major impact.
It is a good model for state penal reform.
States should take a close look at this bill and institute similar provisions into state laws.
For example, in Florida, which just gave ex-felons the right to vote, the new Governor DeSantis could be a hero to over a million ex-felons and their families by urging the legislature to adopt similar reforms and establish a special Commission to review prison reform in Florida’s scandal ridden juvenile and adult corrections system.
As Kay Coles James, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in a statement:
“The First Step Act will increase public safety, strengthen families, and give incarcerated people a chance to flourish after they’ve paid their debt to society. It is time to end the revolving-door our federal prisons have become and put those who are willing to work for a second chance back on the path toward reaching their full potential.”
That’s why the bill is called “The First Step.”
Clarence V. McKee is president of McKee Communications, Inc., a government, political, and media relations consulting firm in Florida. He held several positions in the Reagan administration as well as in the Reagan presidential campaigns. He is a former co-owner of WTVT-TV in Tampa and former president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters. Read more of his reports — Go Here Now.
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