This OpEd by yours truly appears in the June 24, 2019 issue of Florida Today.
Most people are not aware of the First Step Act, signed into law by President Trump in December of 2018. It is a major achievement in improving the criminal justice system, long overdue.
This law seeks to incentivize prison inmates to participate in training programs targeted at increasing opportunities once released. Participation can earn as many as 47 days per year knocked off their sentences. Inmates also earn lighter sentences while ensuring, after release, they will become a productive member of society.
We all want to see criminals pay their debts for committing crimes, particularly violent felonies. No argument there. But imposing extreme sentences on people who will spend 20 to 50 years behind bars does nothing to rehabilitate. Rather, it further reduces opportunities for ex-inmates to become productive citizens.
Some want to see criminals enter prison for decades. But we forget that most of those inmates will be coming out one day, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Not everyone has family members or friends. Not all have support systems. Many are released without any source of income.
Ricky L. was a 31-year-old armed robber who had spent nearly 90% of his adult years in prison. He had no friends or family. No money, no transportation. When he applied for jobs, he was rejected because of his felony record. Finally, he resorted to committing a series of crimes in hopes of getting caught. Still free, he checked himself into a hospital and confessed to doctors. Ricky wanted to go “home.” He didn’t know how to be free. He died in prison.
The president deserves kudos for his latest efforts in tackling long overdue needs of the criminal justice system in America. At a White House event this month, President Trump was joined by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and justice reform advocate and TV star Kim Kardashian West, who was a key figure in obtaining the release of Matthew Charles from a Tennessee prison. Charles spent two decades incarcerated for selling crack cocaine.
Legislators and judges are certainly concerned about getting elected, or re-elected. A death knell against winning at the polls is to appear “soft on crime,” generally measured in sentencing practices. That, in turn, results in many years behind bars accomplishing nothing.
Judges are subject to following rules. Sentences for many felonies are spelled out in minimum mandatory guidelines from which judges cannot ignore. The First Step Act helps judges circumvent minimum mandatories, in appropriate situations. Too often, an 18-year-old makes a mistake for which he will pay until he’s 90 years old.
Charles was the first person to be released under the First Step Act. According to the National Review, another 1,151 crack cocaine sentences have been reduced.
With Trump by her side, Kardashian West announced that she has also been working on a ride sharing program to help former inmates get transportation to jobs and/or interviews.
I have often written about the extreme and morally damaging sentencing practices of the modern era. Our prison system is supposed to be a source of rehabilitation, when in fact, it is little more than a system for warehousing human beings. Yes, we want bad people punished. Their victims deserve that. But we also must deal with the final outcome at the end of that tunnel.
Overall, warehousing is a costly endeavor. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, taxpayers spend an average of $31,000 per year, per inmate. California’s average is $60,000. That does not take into account the population of aging inmates, where costs run much higher. The prison population has now soared to roughly 131,000 inmates over age 55. That’s a lot of medical expenses.
America houses approximately 2.3 million people in jails and prisons. Prison rates in the U.S. are the world’s highest at 724 per 100,000. Russia is second, at 581 per 100,000.
We need to do better. The First Step Act is a great start