Tough on crime, smart on jus­tice

The Community Connection - - OPINION - By Jane Leader Janeczek and Charles Mitchell

Com­men­ta­tors are call­ing it a “Christ­mas mir­a­cle.” Se­nate Repub­li­cans and Democrats co­op­er­ated to ad­vance the FIRST STEP Act, Amer­ica’s most sig­nif­i­cant fed­eral sen­tenc­ing and prison re­form in three decades.

Thou­sands of in­car­cer­ated Amer­i­cans are grate­ful for this bi­par­ti­san bill, which out­lines fairer sen­tenc­ing and smarter prison spend­ing. As ad­vo­cates for Penn­syl­va­nia’s land­mark crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form in 2012, we can at­test the ben­e­fits of hu­mane re­forms and com­mend Congress and the pres­i­dent for bal­anc­ing pub­lic safety, fis­cal pru­dence, and com­pas­sion.

FIRST STEP, which over­whelm­ingly passed the House in May, makes Amer­ica’s fed­eral laws smarter and our com­mu­ni­ties safer. The Na­tional Fra­ter­nal Or­der of Po­lice, whose pri­or­ity is crime pre­ven­tion, en­dorses the bill for this rea­son, and for its pro­vi­sion to pro­tect prison guards by al­low­ing them to carry firearms in more cir­cum­stances.

Key to the re­form are “time cred­its” non-vi­o­lent of­fend­ers can earn for par­tic­i­pa­tion in re­cidi­vism re­duc­tion pro­grams— trim­ming point­lessly long, ex­pen­sive prison sen­tences. Re­cent amend­ments in­clude ad­di­tional mea­sures to en­sure vi­o­lent crim­i­nals won’t qual­ify.

Re­search shows a shorter prison stay can lower the re­cidi­vism rate of of­fend­ers deemed low-risk. Like­wise, more prison time means a higher re­cidi­vism rate for less se­ri­ous of­fenses. Given the prison at­mos­phere breeds crime and a crim­i­nal men­tal­ity, Amer­i­can jus­tice too of­ten works against it­self by de­fault­ing to long sen­tences.

That’s why FIRST STEP re­quires the Bureau of Pris­ons to trans­fer cer­tain low-risk, lowneed in­mates from prison to home con­fine­ment. Be­sides re­duc­ing our enor­mous room, board, health, and guard costs, this re­form places small-time of­fend­ers in a com­mu­nity set­ting in­stead of the crime train­ing fa­cil­ity that fed­eral prison too of­ten be­comes.

The fact is, most peo­ple who com­mit crimes will be back on the streets some­day. The goal of our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem should be to re­duce the like­li­hood of a re­peat of­fense. Right now, the sys­tem we have makes re­cidi­vism more likely. It isn’t just ex­pen­sive; it’s mak­ing us less safe. FIRST STEP takes us the right di­rec­tion — and it’s about time.

While th­ese re­forms alone make se­ri­ous progress, the bill also in­cludes sev­eral pro­por­tion­ate sen­tenc­ing re­forms, such as re­duc­ing the three-strike drug penalty from life in prison to 25 years. That’s truer jus­tice: sen­tences should not stop pu­n­ish­ing peo­ple who com­mit crimes, but the pun­ish­ment must fit the crime.

The FIRST STEP Act is an ex­cit­ing new de­vel­op­ment for fed­eral prison re­form, but Penn­syl­va­nia is al­ready a great ex­am­ple of the long-term im­pact smart re­forms can have.

In 2012, we helped lead a bi­par­ti­san coali­tion sup­port­ing the Jus­tice Rein­vest­ment Ini­tia­tive, which passed unan­i­mously and was signed by then-Gov. Tom Cor­bett, a Repub­li­can. Those re­forms have helped re­duce Penn­syl­va­nia’s prison pop­u­la­tion for four con­sec­u­tive years — more than dou­ble the cu­mu­la­tive pop­u­la­tion re­duc­tions since 1970 — without com­pro­mis­ing pub­lic safety. And as the num­ber of peo­ple in­car­cer­ated has de­clined, so have Penn­syl­va­nia’s vi­o­lent and prop­erty crime rates.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Demo­crat, praised the 2012 ini­tia­tive and re­cently signed ad­di­tional leg­is­la­tion to help for­mer pris­on­ers find work.

As ad­vo­cates for fair­ness and op­por­tu­nity for all Penn­syl­va­ni­ans, we strongly en­dorsed the “clean slate” bill, which seals some crim­i­nal records. A sec­ond bill ended driver’s li­cense sus­pen­sion for non-vi­o­lent, non­driv­ing of­fenses.

We hope law­mak­ers see the bi­par­ti­san mo­men­tum be­hind the FIRST STEP Act as an op­por­tu­nity to ad­vance ad­di­tional re­forms at the state level where most pris­on­ers re­side.

In Penn­syl­va­nia, the sec­ond Jus­tice Rein­vest­ment Ini­tia­tive (JRI2), which con­tains mul­ti­ple bills that ex­pand pa­role for non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers and im­prove sen­tenc­ing, is a great place to start. If JRI2 bills pass, the over­all re­struc­tur­ing will fur­ther re­duce our prison pop­u­la­tion and save ap­prox­i­mately $48 mil­lion over five years.

See­ing Congress and Pres­i­dent Trump work to­gether to en­act hu­mane crim­i­nal jus­tice re­forms, while pro­tect­ing our neigh­bor­hoods, gives us hope. Amer­ica is long over­due for th­ese com­mon­sense corrections re­forms, and Penn­syl­va­nia has the chance to do even more to im­prove the lives of its cit­i­zens. Let’s not let the op­por­tu­nity go to waste.

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