Federal prison inmates number about 180,000, a small portion of the total of 2.1 million individuals in U.S. jails and prisons. And while criminal justice statutes differ greatly among states, what is set at the federal level ought to influence conditions at lower levels. The First Step Act, bipartisan legislation which undoes to a small degree the unfortunate severity of federal sentencing and prison conditions, was signed into law at the end of December.
The legislation was supported by The American Civil Liberties Union, the Koch brothers and, obviously, President Donald Trump. It is the first recognition by Congress and the administration in some time that sentencing and prisoner behavior could be better constructed. Opposition was largely along the lines that violent criminals would benefit and be released sooner than warranted.
Among the changes, the “three strikes” rule, which could include relatively minor offenses, will now result in a sentence of a maximum of 25 years rather than life. Differing sentences for crack and powder cocaine convictions, which unfairly caught up urban youth, will now be recalculated retroactively. Prisoners will also be incarcerated no more than 500 miles from their homes, making family visits easier than they might have been.
Excessive “stacking” of charges, such as for using a gun, which created very lengthy sentences, will be reduced but not eliminated.
Prisoners will also be able to earn additional “good time” credits for good behavior toward their release, and “earned time” credits for participating in prison education and work skills programs that increase the chances for employment and civic engagement and are proven to reduce recidivism.
While it is good to have these modifications, and overdue, they are too limited. Criminal arrest, sentencing and punishment and the disparities among races and ethnicities deserve far more attention and action, according to the ACLU.
The United States at any one time incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country: a ratio of almost 600 for every 100,000 population, compared to Canada’s 114, Germany’s 75 and Japan’s 41. That signals all is not right, that lives are being wasted and financial costs are too high.
Criminal justice delivery is a diverse series of events, beginning with arrest, charges and incarceration, the availability of bail (most jail inmates are there awaiting trial, not because they have been found guilty), legal representation, sentencing, prison behavior and parole. Applying the correct interventions (and protections) at each step is apt to apply the appropriate punishment and support, keep the public safe, lower costs and make it much more likely for those guilty to become proper participants in society.
What occurs in the Colorado justice system is generally no worse than what goes on in other states, but a focus in 2019 on what should be corrected for the betterment of all of the state’s citizens would be a worthy endeavor. How much of what could be considered good justice has the state got right?