Aug 09, 2018

President Trump is Leading on Criminal Justice Reform; Senate Should Send Him a Bill

Post by Mark Holden

President Trump will meet with governors today to discuss criminal justice reform. This comes a week after the president signaled support for including a handful of criminal sentencing reforms to the bipartisan, White House-backed FIRST STEP Act.

The popular bill, which the House approved 360-59 earlier this year, would reduce crime and save money by allowing for evidence-based programs that give incarcerated individuals the tools needed to become productive, law-abiding citizens after they are released from prison; In other words, a second chance. About 96 percent of the roughly 180,000 people serving time in federal prisons will one day reenter our communities, so this vital piece of criminal justice reform legislation would ensure that these people leave prison much better prepared to rebuild their lives.

The modest sentencing provisions that the president is open to take evidence-based approaches to ensure that punishments better fit crimes. They’re also wildly popular with the public. 87 percent of voters said earlier this year that they strongly support replacing mandatory minimum sentences for non‐violent offenders with a system that allows judges more discretion. The reforms include:

  • No more “three strikes and you’re out.” This provision would reduce the mandatory penalty from life to 25 years for a third conviction of certain drug offenses, and from 25 to 15 years for a second conviction. According to FreedomWorks, “this modification ensures that the most potentially dangerous individuals are receiving sentencing enhancements, while those who are not do not take valuable prison resources away from “serious” offenders.” Click here to learn more.
  • Ending so-called “stacking” charges. This provision, which then-Senator Jeff Sessions supported, would prohibit the doubling up of mandatory sentences for certain gun and drug offenses. Former Federal Judge Paul Cassell lamented the 55-year mandatory minimum sentence has was forced to give Weldon Angelos, a Utah man who sold marijuana three times while in possession of a firearm. “If he had been an aircraft hijacker, he would have gotten 24 years in prison. If he’s 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. And now I’m supposed to give him a 55-year sentence?” Cassell asked rhetorically. “I mean, that’s just not right.” Click here to learn more.
  • A “safety valve” for judges. This provision would give judges more discretion in giving less than the mandatory minimum for certain low-level crimes. “I think it’s a miscarriage of justice,” said Judge Mark Bennett, who was forced to slap a five-year mandatory minimum sentence on a 50-year-old Iowa woman struggling with drug addiction. If he had the power, Judge Bennett says he would’ve sentenced the low-level offender to a year or 18 months at most. Click here to learn more.
  • Retroactivity for prior sentencing reform. This provision would make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, which changed sentencing guidelines to treat offenses involving crack and powder cocaine more equally. Click here to learn more. Imagine being sentenced one day to decades in prison for a non-violent offense, only to see someone else handed a far more fitting sentence the very next day for the same act. That’s the situation facing thousands of non-violent, low-level prisoners who have more than paid their debt to society.

By supporting these smart-on-crime, soft-on-taxpayers reforms, President Trump is demonstrating exemplary leadership. If Congress is able to pass the FIRST STEP Act with these sentencing provisions included, it would give the president a lasting, landmark achievement on criminal justice reform that has eluded previous administrations. On the other hand, if these changes jeopardize the bill’s passage, lawmakers should not waste the opportunity they have to pass the original version of the legislation. Either way, the FIRST STEP Act represents a major step in the right direction toward reducing crime and recidivism, and making our criminal justice system smarter, more just, and more humane.

If you agree that we can’t wait any longer for meaningful criminal justice reform, click here to send a note to your Senator.