By The New York
Times Editorial Board
friend of mine told me that when people get out of prison, they’re all
excited,” Mr. Trump said. “And then they go and they have that stigma; they
can’t get a job. People don’t want to hire them. They can’t get that chance.
When we talk about our national program to hire American, this must include
helping millions of former inmates get back into the work force as gainfully
more than a decade, states of every political hue — from Texas
— have been
overhauling their criminal justice systems, to reverse the effects of decades
of harsh and counterproductive policies.
Congress has watched this revolution from the sidelines, thanks to reactionary
lawmakers, including Mr. Sessions when he was in the Senate. Comprehensive
federal legislation has
been foiled again and again
, as states forge ahead, reducing both prison populations
and crime rates through bipartisan reforms.
the balance is a bloated federal prison system that locks up more than 180,000
people, a sevenfold increase since 1980. That population, which is
disproportionately black and brown, began to decline under President Obama, but
is now on
track to grow again
the new, more punitive policies of Mr. Sessions’s Justice Department.
Now two big
justice-reform bills are making their way through Congress, and they’ve
scrambled the usual partisan lines.
One bill backed
by the White House, known as the First
improve some prison conditions and help smooth the path to re-entry for people
behind bars. It would, for example, require that inmates be housed within 500
miles of their families, prohibit the brutal but disturbingly common practice
of shackling pregnant women and expand rehabilitative programs in which
prisoners can participate to earn good-time credits. These are all important
and long-overdue fixes to existing law.
But the bill
would leave it up to individual prison wardens to decide who gets to use their
credits and when, which means inmates would be treated differently based on
where they’re locked up. The bill also restricts early release to halfway
houses, even though as many as 40 percent of people behind bars pose no risk to
public safety, according
to a study
the Brennan Center for Justice, and would do fine with less intensive
oversight, such as electronic monitoring. On top of that, federal halfway
houses are so underfunded that even inmates who are eligible for immediate
release can’t go anywhere, because there aren’t enough beds available.
problem with the First Step Act, however, isn’t what’s in it; it’s what’s left
out. Specifically, sentencing reform. Harsh sentencing laws passed in the 1980s
and 1990s, like mandatory minimums of 10 or 20 years even for low-level drug
crimes, have been among the main drivers of the nation’s exploding prison
If the states’
experience has demonstrated anything, it’s that effective justice reform can’t
happen without addressing both ends of the problem at once — not simply helping
the people now behind bars, but limiting how many get locked up in the first
come to appreciate this fact. Senator Charles Grassley, the Republican chairman
of the Judiciary Committee, wrote in an
op-ed on Fox News
it was “naïve and unproductive” to focus only on so-called “back-end” reforms
like good-time credits, and ignore the punitive sentencing laws that continue
to fill the nation’s prisons. “There will never be enough funding for back-end
prison reform programs as long as there is a steady stream of new inmates with
lengthy sentences disproportionate to their crimes,” Mr. Grassley wrote.
Mr. Grassley is
sponsoring the Sentencing
Reform and Corrections Act
which would reduce the harshest sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and give
judges more discretion to issue lighter sentences. The bill nearly passed
Congress in 2016, only to be killed by then-Senator Jeff Sessions.
Mr. Sessions has
continued to badmouth sentencing reform as attorney general, leading
Mr. Grassley to suggest
if he “wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should
have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama.”
bill has the support of top senators of both parties, as well as
law-enforcement leaders and the Leadership
Conference on Civil and Human Rights
a coalition of more than 200 civil-rights organizations. It’s not perfect, but
it’s far preferable to the First Step Act, which could get a vote in the House
as soon as this week.
liberal backers of the First Step Act, like Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the
New York Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, argue that it’s better than
nothing, especially in the current political environment. “We have a Republican
president. Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate,”
Mr. Jeffries wrote in letter to his colleagues on Friday. “Those are the
He’s right. And yet a partial bill could end up being worse than
nothing, especially if its benefits don’t live up to expectations, and if
Congress, which has many other pressing matters to attend to, decides it’s had
enough of the topic.
“Get a bill to my desk,” Mr. Trump said on Friday. “I will sign
it.” If he means this, and if he genuinely cares about reforming the federal
justice system, he’ll demand a bill that addresses the system’s most pressing