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“Ceding To The Language Of Reform”: The Senate’s Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Bill Only Tackles Half The Problem

Determination to “do something” about the issue of mass incarceration has, at last, moved from the academic and activist worlds into the halls of Congress: At the beginning of October, a bipartisan coalition of Senators, including Chuck Grassley, Dick Durbin, Cory Booker, John Cornyn, and Tim Scott, unveiled a criminal-justice-reform plan. Whether that “something” they’re doing is commensurate to the scale of the problem, though, depends on the terms of the debate.

So far, the growing cost of imprisonment and the injustice of long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders have been the centerpieces of conversations about reform. But if that is all the criminal-justice reformers focus on, the “something” that gets done about the United States’ prison problem will fail to address the root causes of the explosion in the incarcerated population that has occurred over the past 40 years.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, as it is currently known, reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders, replaces life sentences for “three strikes” violations with 25 years, provides judges more discretion in sentencing low-level drug offenders, mostly ends solitary confinement for juveniles, and funds reentry programs, among other reforms. The bill is expected to pass in the Senate, be supported in the House (which introduced its own reform bill earlier this year), and ultimately be signed into law by President Obama.

In the immediate future, it will mean shorter sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison; when applied retroactively, it will lead to the release of others. The prison population will shrink slightly, and the federal government will save a bit of money. But the United States will remain free to continue locking away millions of people.

Many reform advocates have praised the Senate proposal, and understandably so. Organizing around prisons and incarcerated people—those written off as the dregs of society—is tough, and any win is a welcome one, particularly one that will directly benefit people currently serving unjust sentences. “I spent 12 years behind bars because of mandatory minimum sentences in New York,” Tony Papa of Drug Policy Alliance said in a statement, “and I’ve been fighting to end them since my release in 1996. I’m proud to say DPA worked with members of Congress to reach this…historic deal. It’s a great step in the right direction.”

“But,” he added, “we must remember it is just a step.” These changes only affect federal sentencing guidelines and don’t end mandatory minimums (in fact, the bill imposes new minimums, on certain crimes related to domestic violence and gun possession or sale linked to terrorist activity). Despite such moderate reforms, it is being hailed as “historic,” “major,” and a “game changer.” Why? Because a true agenda for change has been ceded to the language of reform. The debate started and has effectively ended without considering the injustice of the very existence of prisons. We never considered abolition.

In a reply to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover story “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” political scientist Marie Gottschalk calls for a “third Reconstruction.” She argues that any plan to reduce the prison population cannot focus only on those already incarcerated, but must include a massive investment program to ameliorate the conditions that produce the violence that leads to arrest and imprisonment. “If the US is serious about reducing high levels of concentrated violence,” Gottschalk writes, “then addressing the country’s high levels of inequality and concentrated poverty should become a top priority, not a public-policy afterthought.”

Gottschalk is using language that will be familiar to longtime Nation readers. It was at the onset of Bill Clinton’s presidency that historian Eric Foner made the case in these pages for a “third Reconstruction” to repair the damage of done during the Reagan/Bush era. The Reconstruction, of course, is the period after the end of the Civil War, when federal investment and military protection made it possible for the formerly enslaved to relocate, vote, run for office, start their own businesses, and begin the building of thriving communities. The second Reconstruction is considered to be the fruit of the civil-rights movement, which ended legalized segregation, implemented federal protections to ensure the right to vote, and led to the passage of the Fair Housing Act. Gottschalk sees room to invest in the sort of programs that would drastically reduce the crimes used as a pretext for mass incarceration. To her, the “only legitimate long-term solution to the crime crisis is another Reconstruction.”

But the language of “reconstruction” can’t be employed without considering what preceded it—abolition. We abolished the institution of slavery. We abolished legalized segregation. If we want a third Reconstruction to take place, the abolition of prisons should be on the table.

Abolition makes sense, though, only if we see prisons as a site of injustice in and of themselves. And they are—not only because of the violence of rape and murder that exists within prison walls, the psychological damage, the lack of educational opportunities, and the denial of due process that locks up innocent people. Prison is the means by which we tell ourselves we are dealing with our societal ills, but only creating more. Prison makes us lazy thinkers, hungry for revenge instead of justice. Prison is a violent representation of our failure to fight inequality at all levels. In abolishing prison, we force ourselves to answer the difficult question: How do we provide safety and security for all people?

Abolition will not win right now. But an abolitionist framework for crafting reforms would lead to more substantial changes in the US prison system. An abolitionist framework makes us consider not only reducing mandatory minimums but eliminating them altogether. An abolitionist framework would call for us to decriminalize possession and sale of drugs. Abolition would end the death penalty and life sentences, and push the maximum number of years that can be served for any offense down to ten years, at most.

With these reforms in place, we as a society would have a huge incentive to rehabilitate those in prison, and we would ensure the incarcerated are capable of socialization when they are released. And without being able to depend on prison as a site of retribution, we would have to find new ways to address things like gender-based violence, sexual assault, and domestic violence. And we could then start making the kinds of investments in alleviating poverty that Gottschalk calls for.

But we can’t do that so long as prison exists as a fail-safe. Abolition may not win today, but neither did it win when it was first introduced as solution for slavery or segregation. So long as we allow the terms of the debate to be shaped by what is politically possible, we’ll only ever be taking tiny steps and calling them major.

 

By: Mychal Denzel Smith, The Nation, October 14, 2015

October 18, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Criminal Justice System, Mass Incarceration | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Challenging The Tough On Crime Craze”: Obama Administration Works On Both The Front And Back End Of Criminal Justice Reform

Recently I wrote about Evan McMorris-Santoro’s profile of Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. In the course of describing her work on mandatory minimum sentences, he explains something interesting about the politics involved in criminal justice reform.

The divide is now between so-called front-end advocates, who want changes to sentencing laws and penalties given to criminals when they first enter the system, and so-called back-end advocates who would rather leave sentencing alone and focus on parole eligibility and anti-recidivism programs.

The politics are simple, and crucial. Front-end changes are more risky, opening up politicians to attack ads saying they favored lower sentences for criminals and reduced penalties for drug dealers. The most ardent criminal justice advocates are pushing front-end changes. Back-end changes are an easier sell politically, but have much less impact on prison populations, according to advocates. They’re usually the most favored solution by politicians who are still closely tied to the tough-on-crime model of criminal justice that produced mandatory minimums for drug crimes in the first place.

It’s important to note that while Deputy AG Yates is focused almost exclusively on ensuring that front-end changes are included in any criminal justice reform legislation, the Obama administration is not ignoring back-end reforms. For example, the ongoing work of the Clemency Initiative that has already commuted the sentences of 89 prisoners is an example of back-end changes.

Josh Mitchell and Joe Palazzolo report that the Obama administration has decided to implement another back-end reform.

The Obama administration plans to restore federal funding for prison inmates to take college courses, a potentially controversial move that comes amid a broader push to overhaul the criminal justice system.

The plan, set to be unveiled Friday by the secretary of education and the attorney general, would allow potentially thousands of inmates in the U.S. to gain access to Pell grants, the main form of federal aid for low-income college students. The grants cover up to $5,775 a year in tuition, fees, books and other education-related expenses.

They go on to explain that this will be a 3-5 year experimental study on the impact of education on recidivism rates. That is mostly due to the fact that in 1994 Congress prohibited state and federal prisoners from getting access to Pell grants, but the Dept. of Education has the authority to temporarily waive rules in order to study their effectiveness.

I’d suggest that there’s not much doubt about what the results will be.

A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. found that inmates who participated in education programs, including college courses, had significantly lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who didn’t.

It is encouraging to watch as, one by one, the reactionary policies of the war on drugs and the 90’s era “tough on crime” craze are challenged and revoked.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, July 30, 2015

July 30, 2015 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Mandatory Minimum Sentencing, Mass Incarceration | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“There But For The Grace Of God”: America Needs A Justice System Worthy Of The Name

The United States does not have a justice system.

If we define a justice system as a system designed for the production of justice, then it seems obvious that term cannot reasonably be applied to a system that countenances the mass incarceration by race and class of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders. Any system that vacuums in 1 out of every 3 African-American males while letting a banker who launders money for terrorist-connected organizations, Mexican drug cartels, and Russian mobsters off with a fine is not a justice system.

No, you call that an injustice system.

This is something I’ve been saying for years. Imagine my surprise when, last week, President Obama said it, too. “Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair,” he said in a speech before the NAACP in Philadelphia, “that’s not a justice system, that’s an injustice system.” He called for reforms, including the reduction or elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing and the repeal of laws that bar ex-felons from voting.

This was the day after Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, and two days before he became the first president to visit a prison, Federal Correctional Institution El Reno, near Oklahoma City. “There but for the grace of God,” he said, minutes after poking his head into an empty 9-by-10 cell that houses three inmates.

It was more than just an acknowledgment of his personal good fortune. Given that Obama, his two immediate predecessors, and such disparate luminaries as Sarah Palin, John Kerry, Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, Jeb Bush, and Rick Santorum are known to have used illicit drugs when they were younger, it was also a tacit acknowledgment that fate takes hairpin turns. And that the veil separating drug offender from productive citizen is thinner than we sometimes like to admit.

Welcome to what may be a transformational moment: the end of an odious era of American jurisprudence. Meaning, the era of mass incarceration.

Apparently, the president has decided to make this a priority of his final 18 months in office. Even better, the call for reform enjoys bipartisan support. Republican senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, among others, have embraced the cause. And the very conservative Koch brothers have chosen to “ban the box” (i.e., stop requiring ex-offenders to disclose their prison records to prospective employers on their job applications).

All of which raises the promise that, just maybe, something will actually be done.

It is long past “about time.” Our color-coded, class-conscious, zero-tolerance, punishment-centric, mandatory minimum system of “justice” has made us the largest jailer on earth. One in four of the world’s prisoners is in an American lockup. This insane rate of imprisonment has strained resources and decimated communities.

It has also shattered families and impoverished children, particularly black ones. So many people bewail or condemn the fact that a disproportionate number of black children grow up without fathers, never connecting the dots to the fact that a disproportionate number of black fathers are locked up for the same nonviolent drug offenses for which white fathers routinely go free.

The “get tough on crime” wave that swept over this country in the ’80s and ’90s was born of the unfortunate American penchant for applying simplistic answers to complicated questions. But bumper-sticker solutions have a way of bringing unintended consequences.

We will be dealing with these unintended consequences for generations to come. But perhaps we are finally ready to take steps toward reversing that historic blunder.

And giving America a justice system worthy of the name.

 

By: Leonard Pitts,  Jr.,  Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, July 22, 2015

July 23, 2015 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Mass Incarceration, Racial Injustice | , , , , | 1 Comment

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