In The News

Prison Reform Goes to Washington

In the Washington Post, columnist Eugene Robinson discusses the congressional divide over the First Step Act, a prison reform measure that passed the House last month. He says that while it doesn’t adequately tackle sentencing reform, it offers some important changes including basic dignity protections:

The First Step Act ignores the “front end” of the problem — sentencing — and focuses exclusively on the “back end.” It would provide $50 million a year for five years in new funding for education and rehabilitation programs in federal prisons, encourage inmates to participate in those programs by giving them credits for early release, and allow some prisoners to serve the balance of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement.

Proponents estimate the bill would allow up to 4,000 inmates to be released from prison immediately. This is a small fraction of the total federal prison population of nearly 184,000. But try to explain that disparity to those 4,000 men and women and their families.

The bill also requires that inmates be housed at prisons within 500 miles of their homes, that inmates not be shackled during childbirth and recovery, and that sanitary products be provided to female prisoners. It is appalling that such basic humanity has to be compelled by legislation, but here we are.

Some members of the Senate hope to get limited changes in sentencing added to the bill but others worry doing so would kill the bill’s chances of passage, writes Carl Hulse in the New York Times:

They are focused on narrowing the definition of crimes that can prompt long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and on cutting the length of some of the required sentences. They say that such changes would have a much more consequential effect on easing the United States’ mass incarceration than solely focusing on recidivism.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s Bryan Lufkin takes a look at the impact of lengthy prison sentences and why in the United States it can be difficult to make the case against them:

The U.S. also has some of the longest prison sentences in the world due to its cultural values including an extreme emphasis on personal responsibility, religious belief in good and evil, and the idea that a community has the moral imperative to stamp out bad deeds. It may be little surprise that a common US argument in favor of long prison times is the old maxim “if you can’t serve the time, don’t do the crime.”

“As a cultural matter, the US is dedicated to the idea of individualism – that people are accountable for their actions,” says Christopher Slobogin, director of the criminal justice program at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Other societies might contextualize crime as more situational. But in the U.S., there’s a stronger sense that it stems from bad decision-making.

For comparison, he looks at Norway’s open approach to prison. The country abolished capital punishment in 1902 and life sentences in 1981. The maximum prison length for the country is 21 years and the average length of stay is just 8 months. Their maximum-security facilities have no bars, security cameras or armed guards. Yet, the country boasts one of the lowest rates of recidivism in the world at 20 percent. The U.S. recidivism rate is 67 percent.