The first step toward criminal justice reform

By DIANE DIMOND

So, did you hear? Democrats and Republicans in Washington have promised to cooperate in finding solutions for the country’s lingering problems!

After the midterm elections, they promised they would try really, really hard to work together.

Color me skeptical.

But there is one legislative area where there does seem to be honest bipartisan collaboration: Criminal justice reform.

It has finally dawned on lawmakers that all those years of imposing mandatory minimum sentences were largely to blame for our grossly over-bloated prisons. Taking away a judge’s discretion to deal with defendants individually and adjust their sentence accordingly was foolish. It meant the low-level, nonviolent person who answered the drug kingpin’s telephone was often sentenced just as harshly as the drug kingpin. Those in this low-level category now make up a full 25 percent of our federal prison population.

Congress has also become aware of the prosecutorial tactic known as stacking firearm offenses. A startling case in point came in Utah several years ago. Weldon Angelos, a first-time drug offender, was caught selling $1,000 worth of marijuana. Prosecutors added enhancements to their sentencing recommendation because he was allegedly carrying guns during his first two sales. That meant five years to his sentence plus 25 years. But after police located a gun at his home, prosecutors stacked another 25-year sentence on top. Under law, then-Judge Paul Cassell was forced to impose a 55-year sentence.

“If he had been an aircraft hijacker, he would have gotten 24 years in prison. If he’d been a terrorist, he would have gotten 20 years in prison. If he was a child rapist, he would have gotten 11 years in prison,” Judge Cassell said in a television interview. “And now I’m supposed to give him a 55-year sentence? I mean, that’s just not right.” The judge championed leniency for Angelos, and Angelos was ultimately released after serving 12 years.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a shocking 94 percent of convicts saddled with stacked sentences like Angelos’ are people of color. Ninety-four percent. Think about that.

And those who make our laws have finally come to understand that if you treat prisoners with a bit of dignity during incarceration and help them find a job right away, the recidivism rate is greatly reduced.

The sentencing reform bill that is pending — and may soon be passed into law — also folds in the First Step Act, which was passed by the House last May. The act reforms the federal prison system in important ways. It returns prisoners to life on the outside sooner if they take educational, vocational or faith-based courses. Ten earned credits are awarded for each 30 days they stay in class, and those credits can be spent by them to transfer into a halfway house, home confinement or community supervision to finish out their sentence. The act compels the Bureau of Prisons to get inmates job-ready and to provide an ID card for every person upon their release. Placing prisoners in facilities close to their families is encouraged so visits can help them feel eager to return to family life. The legislation also lowers lifetime mandatory minimum sentences to 25 years, reduces the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related offenses retroactively and bans the current practice of shackling pregnant women during birth.

This year will see some 42,000 federal inmates leave prison. The number jumps to more than 600,000 if you count those released from state and local lockups.

It’s just common sense that if these people are given a helping hand in their effort to find jobs and make positive changes in their lives, public safety will be enhanced. Future taxpayers will be created. Family structure can be mended.

I’m not sure enough businesspeople know about The Work Opportunity Tax Credit program, which gives employers a federal tax credit of up to $9,600 for hiring members of several target groups including ex-felons (employed no later than one year after their release), veterans and welfare recipients.

Many states and municipalities offer similar tax breaks.

The leaders reforming our deeply flawed criminal justice system have to come from Capitol Hill, and I hope they can pass this much-needed legislation before the end of the year, as hinted.

But we citizens can also help change the atmosphere for sincere former prisoners by realizing that a felony conviction may not be as serious as it sounds. The person standing in front of you, simply asking for a second chance, may be the victim of stacking by prosecutors under orders to win the most stringent sentence possible.

They may have done a stupid thing by aiding a career criminal, but they may truly seek redemption and a better way of life.

Get to know their stories. Studies show these employees often make the best workers because once hired, they truly value their job.

They will look out for you, since you looked out for them.

Diane Dimond is a Creators Syndicate writer.

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