Biased federal laws that have subjected a generation of African-American men to unfair, lengthy prison sentences may finally be reformed thanks to an unlikely ally in President Donald Trump.
Who knows the motives of the president, who normally takes a hard-nosed approach to crime and is far from a proponent of second chances (for other people, anyway), in supporting The First Step Act, which could become one of the most extensive federal sentencing reform laws in years. Maybe he was swayed by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has made the subject one of his cornerstone issues. Or maybe he got a nudge from prominent Republicans like the Koch brothers, who favor prison reform more for the economic benefits — it is costly to imprison people for years upon years — rather than the toll on human life. Or was it the chance to throw a jab at former President Bill Clinton, whose 1994 crime bill put many of the draconian sentencing guidelines in place during a tough-on-crime era that swept the country?
Whatever the reason, the country finally has the chance to right the wrongs of laws that created major inequities in the criminal justice system and give some prisoners a chance to rebuild their lives. Liberals have pushed for such changes for years, while books like “The New Jim Crow” laid out the injustices in sentencing laws long ago. We are glad to see an emerging bipartisan consensus, no matter the rationale.
The legislation, a version that passed the House and is being worked out in the Senate, builds on reforms made during the Obama years. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced disparities in punishment between crack and powder cocaine. Those convicted on charges related to crack, disproportionately African-Americans, were given longer sentences than those caught with cocaine, who were mostly white. The new legislation would take that a step forward and also reduce the sentences of those convicted on crack offenses before 2010. That could affect hundreds of federal prisoners even though their fate would lie in the hands of judges they would have to petition for sentence changes.
Mandatory minimum sentences that now land people in prison for the rest of their lives for some nonviolent drug offenses would also be reduced under the law. In certain cases, judges would be able to use “safety valves” giving them the discretion to give lighter sentences than the mandatory minimums.
One of the problems with mandatory minimums was that they robbed judges of discretion; one of the pitfalls in this reform is the possibility that restored discretion would lead to uneven and inequitable outcomes. Judges would have a lot of power over the fate of people’s lives under the law, and we’re sure that most will exercise compassion and open-mindedness and do the right thing. But we all know this may not turn out to be the case in conservative areas where judges may be inclined not to be as lenient, or where racist law enforcement practices persist. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union will have to watch carefully.
Setting prisoners free does have the potential for significant savings without endangering the public. For example, a study by the Justice Policy Institute that found older prisoners released under what’s known as the Unger ruling could save the Maryland $185 million. Under the 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals decision, in which the state’s highest court questioned the fairness of jury instructions during trials before 1980, long-term prisoners were released from state prisons. Virtually none of them has gone on to commit other crimes.
The potential for prisoners to be reunited with their families and build new lives is an even better reason to support sentencing reform. We just have to make sure these prisoners aren’t set up for failure upon release. They will need jobs, places to live and emotional and family support so they don’t offend again. The House version of the sentencing reform bill lays out provisions for the Bureau of Prisoners to curtail this type of recidivism, including substance abuse treatment, counseling and vocational training.
Let’s hope they follow through.