Tag: prison population

The First Step Act: A True First Step in Criminal Justice Reform

By TJ Robers | United States

Last night, the United States Senate overwhelmingly voted to pass the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that President Trump has pledged to sign. The bill makes massive strides in improving America’s justice system, but we must not get carried away. While every reform in this bill ultimately makes America’s justice system better, the First Step Act must not be the end. It must be the beginning because criminal justice in America still has a plethora of flaws that we must address if we are to be truly free.

What the First Step Act Does

“Criminal Justice Reform” is a god-term, meaning it invokes an immediate, positive, and powerful response from a listener. Fortunately, the First Step Act does not fall into the trap that laws like the PATRIOT Act fell into, in which a law destroys freedom despite the connotation that the name has. This bill actually takes steps in the right direction.

The First Step Act Reduces Crack Sentences

Crack and Cocaine are ultimately the same things. Despite this, crack carries a much more severe sentence. This has had a devastating effect on minority communities since the 1980s. The First Step Act takes measures to make crack and cocaine equal in terms of sentencing by lowering the sentences one would receive for possession of crack.

The First Step Act Reduces Mandatory Minimums

Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill included a three strikes rule in which someone convicted of their third felony will receive an automatic life sentence. The First Step Act converts this to a 25-year sentence. In addition, federal judges will have a “safety valve” that will allow them to subvert mandatory minimums. This will help 2000 people avoid mandatory minimums.

The First Step Act is Not Enough

It is a good thing that crack sentences are being reduced and that nonviolent offenders are avoiding mandatory minimums. What is a bad thing, however, is that any nonviolent individual is behind bars. Right now, America makes up 5% of the world’s population but holds 25% of the world’s prison population. Many of these inmates are nonviolent offenders who did nothing more but sell or smoke a plant the government does not like.

This is not to be critical of the First Step Act; it is a step in the right direction. But that is all it is. Let us not pretend that the justice system has been fixed in the United States because it hasn’t been. We ought to be thankful that this legislation is making progress. We must, however, ensure that a chilling effect does not set in, because the people who have been victimized by America’s criminal justice system need far more than this bill offers.

You own yourself. You should not be in prison for using a drug. The only person you are harming by doing so is yourself. That should be your choice, and I do not have the right to forcefully stop you from making that choice.

Perhaps a more sweeping fix would be to declare the drug war as what it is: a trillion dollar failure that has devastated the lives of millions, especially in our poor and minority communities. Every individual who is incarcerated but never created a victim should be free. Mandatory minimums should be eliminated. Crime is an individual phenomenon. Sentencing should be treated as such.

In other words, The First Step Act is a first step that will help a lot of people, but it is not enough. To truly have a free society, we must push for freedom for all people; this means fighting the prison industrial complex.


This article was originally published in LIFE.

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It’s Time To Start Talking About Bail Reform

By Francis Folz | United States

Criminal justice reform is often a precarious topic of American politics. Although Americans by and large recognize our criminal justice system is broken, they often dispute which solutions are best to mend our system’s innumerable quagmires. Political inaction, or worse, further detrimental actions, only exacerbate our system’s woes.

The land of the free is the home of the brave. However, it is also home to 21 percent of the world’s prison population, but only 4.4% of the world’s general population. The United States has between 3 to 4 times as many citizens behind bars in comparison to other developed nations. And what’s worse than locking citizens up for victimless crimes is that 34% of defendants are kept in jail because of their inability to post bail.

From a fiscally responsible perspective, bail reform is a no brainer. A recent study revealed that as of 2014, almost 63 percent of local jail inmates have not been convicted. That statistic is calamitous for two reasons. First, that the state assumes 60 percent of prisoners are innocent, but still detains them without a verdict. Second, housing inmates isn’t cheap. On average, the United States spends $33,000 per year for every inmate. These costs range between states, with Alabama spending nearly $15,000 per inmate and New York spending $69,000.

A majority of Americans support the idea of bail reform in a number of ways. For starters, 57% favor removing people from jails who cannot afford their bail, except in the most extreme circumstances. Furthermore, 70% of Americans believe public safety should be the deciding factor as to whether someone stays in jail before their trial or not. Clearly, Americans broadly support altering the merits of whether individuals walk free before their trial, and for good reason.

Although the concept of reforming our bail system may be new to public discussion, the concept of bail has great historical precedent. In fact, bail has been a part of the Anglo-Saxon justice system for a very long time. Our founding fathers dedicated the 8th amendment to ensure the government could not levy excessive bails against the accused. The purpose of a bail system has always been to assure the accused return to court for their trial.

Regrettably over time, combined with diminutive oversight, our bail system has transformed into a trap for lower income individuals. For example, police accused one man in New York City of possessing drug paraphernalia for merely carrying a soda and straw from the local convenience store. Although the man had a prior criminal history, all of his offenses were low-level and non-violent. Despite the man posing no threat to his community, the state set his bail at an incomprehensible 1,500 dollars. For someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, that is an absurd amount of money, especially when your crime was possessing a plastic straw.

Unfortunately, like so many other issues we currently face, our nation has strayed from the Constitution’s limitations. And as a result, we now find ourselves in a crossroads where change is necessary to avert further dilemmas. At a time when it is imperative to reign in government spending and reduce the amount of citizens behind bars, ameliorating our current system is one of America’s most rational and promising chances at bail reform.


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