Criminal Justice Reform
We Need Criminal Justice Revolution
If you don’t know already, the criminal justice system needs massive reform desperately. Former President Obama knew reform was needed as evidenced by his unprecedented visit to a federal prison. He was the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
Just One Example
As a criminal defense attorney, I have witnessed the need for reform daily. For instance, I represented a homeless defendant who was charged with theft. He stole a piece of abandoned metal from a railroad track that was worth $0.96. That’s right, $0.96. He had already spent two months in jail. The prosecutor thought he should be jailed for 18 months. I tried to convince her that it was nonsense to incarcerate this homeless man any longer at taxpayers’ expense for stealing something valued less than a dollar. She would not budge. I was dumbfounded!
My intent is not to disparage prosecutors. They must follow the law. I understand their situation. In fact, this particular prosecutor is a friend of mine. She probably agreed with me but could not admit it.
Wasted Taxpayer Dollars
The State of Texas spends approximately $50 per day of taxpayers’ money to incarcerate inmates. So, in my client’s case, the prosecutor was recommending that the system spend $27,000 to incarcerate him for stealing a $0.96 piece of abandoned metal. Her recommendation was all the more nonsensical because my client wasn’t a threat to anyone. He was a homeless petty criminal probably stealing to buy food or get locked up for shelter. Had he been a violent career criminal, it would’ve made sense to take him off the streets.
Fortunately, the judge in our case intervened and gave my client time served for the two months he had already spent in jail. Truthfully, even those two months of incarceration cost taxpayers too much for theft of something valued at $0.96.Sure, everyone wants violent offenders in jail and prison. They endanger all of our lives. But, spending tens of thousands of dollars to incarcerate homeless, petty, nonviolent career criminals for very petty crimes is just plain dumb. Silly, I say!As a taxpayer, I just don’t want my hard-earned money wasted like that.
The First Step Act
In 2018, Jared Kushner, son-in-law and special advisor to Trump, led a group of bipartisan politicians, activists, and businessmen in developing the First Step Act of 2018. It’s woefully inadequate but as the name suggests, it’s a first step, albeit a very small baby step. Much more reform is needed. Let’s take a look at some of the useful provisions.
What the Act does
- Recidivism reduction.The Act requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to assess every prisoner and reward them for good behavior with more phone calls, home confinement, incarceration in facilities closer to home and other privileges. These small privileges may seem insignificant but for inmates, especially those wrongfully convicted, these privileges are greatly appreciated. Violent offenders are excluded from this reward system.
- Time Credit.The Act allows prisoners to earn 10 days of time credit for every 30 days they participate in recidivism-reducing programs. Minimum-risk or low-risk prisoners can receive an additional five days of credits.
- Faith-based participation.The Act encourages BOP to partner with faith-based organizations and rewards inmates who participate in faith-based programs.
- Prerelease Programs.Some inmates can be released to prerelease programs for good behavior.
- Pregnant Women.The Act prohibits BOP from placing pregnant women in restraints unless they are a flight risk or harmful to themselves or others or a medical professional deems the restraint necessary.
- Mandatory Sentencing For Three Strikes Drug Offenses.The Act reduces from mandatory life to 25 years for people who are convicted of a nonviolent third drug offence and reduces from 20 years to 15 years for the second serious drug offense, retroactively.
- Safety Valve.The Act allows courts to consider a sentence below the statutory minimum for some non-violent, low-level drug offenders.
- Firearms Used.The Act clarifies that enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for use of a firearm during a crime of violence or a drug crime is limited to offenders previously convicted and who had served a sentence for such an offense.
- Petition For Reduced Sentencing.The Act allows prisoners to petition sentencing courts for a reduction in sentence consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity in sentencing between convictions involving crack and powder cocaine.
- The Act appropriates $15,000,000 for the BOP to partnership with faith-based and other entities to help inmates reenter society. This is big for those of us who work in this space.
- The Act prohibits the BOP from placing juveniles in solitary confinement unless it’s deemed necessary.
What the Act doesn’t do?
- It does not apply to the 50 states.The Act applies only to the federal prison system. It doesn’t apply to state prisons and jails. The federal system only incarcerates 180,789 people whereas the state system incarcerates approximately two million people.
- It does not reform the bail system.The Act doesn’t address the issue of detaining poor people because they can’t afford bail. I knew one defendant who spent three days in jail because he didn’t have $30 for bail.
- It does not reduce the number of felonies.The Act does not repeal or reduce the many felony charges that shouldn’t be felonies in the first place.
- It does not address expunctions.The Act doesn’t increase opportunities for expunctions, so a person is not a convicted felon and punished for the rest of his life.
Real criminal justice reform is long overdue. It’s time to move away from a legal system that’s replete with racial and economic disparities. We need a system based on fairness and justice. We need to build a system that attempts to rehabilitate people rather than punish and dehumanize them for the rest of their lives. However, many people believe the system is deeply corrupt because it accomplishes precisely what whites designed it to accomplish, which is the oppression of black and brown people. Hence, many black and brown people, including myself, have given up on criminal justice reform and believe it’ll take a revolution to change the system. Not a violent overthrow of the government but changes in the system that are so radical and transformative it will amount to a revolution.