Another Flawed Attempt at Criminal Justice Reform

Criminal justice reform is returning to political prominence, thanks to Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, one of its most ardent advocates. Ordinarily, that might be good news. But once again, the legislation at issue is so badly flawed that passage would cost taxpayers billions, yield little in the way of public safety or relief for the federal prison system and—at least according to liberal prison reformers—little reform.

The House Judiciary Committee, in a rare burst of bipartisan energy, last week passed the latest rendition of this recurrent theme. In an unusual non-party line 25-5vote, HR 5682, a watered-down version of legislation that has been kicking around Congress for several years, advanced toward consideration by the full House. Supporters hope the bill—which is also known as the FIRST STEP Act—will have a vote in the next couple of weeks.

HR 5682 would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide more resources to reduce the likelihood of recidivism and ease reentry of prisoners back into society. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate but has yet to be taken up by the Judiciary Committee. A very different bill, encompassing a considerably wider array of reform, did pass the Senate Judiciary Committee several months ago over the objection of five Republican members.

The current bill has, not surprisingly, a wide list of supporters and opponents. To try to gain supporters, some of the most objectionable provisions of older legislation were left out and several new provisions added. Kushner has been able to secure White House backing, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions strongly opposes it. Several libertarian right-of-center groups, including those controlled by the Koch brothers, are strong supporters, while a number of left-wing groups, including the ACLU, People for the American Way and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human rights strongly oppose the legislation because it doesn’t go far enough.

Among the bill’s major flaws is a provision that would require every federal prisoner, without exception, be placed in a facility within 500 miles of home. The first problem? There are some 22,000 gang members in the federal system, many placed far from rivals to avoid violence in the prisons. Many, if not all, would have to be moved at vast expense.

Second, it is doubtful that any member voting in favor of the bill ever looked at a map of federal prison locations. They would notice vast swaths of the United States—particularly in the western part of the country—have no federal prisons. Needless to say, thousands of federal prisoners are housed in facilities well over 500 miles from home. As an example, there is no federal prison facility between Sheridan, Oregon and Yankton, South Dakota—a distance of over 1,600 miles. Either many new prisons would have to be built or presumably tens of thousands of prisoners would be released.

Worse, there is only one federal “supermax” prison in the country, located in Florence, Colorado. Its guests include a rogue’s gallery of the country’s worst criminals, foreign terrorists, domestic terrorists, mafia kingpins and other infamous thugs. Among of its more infamous inmates, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is certainly more than 500 miles from home. So is Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman will have a cell waiting after his conviction in New York.

Florence is also home to al-Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 terrorist attack, the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, and Terry Nichols of Oklahoma City fame, to name a few. While Florence houses some 400 other prisoners, it is hard to imagine that home is within 500 miles for any of them. New, regional supermax prisons would need to be constructed at great expense to taxpayers.

If passed, supporters of this ill-conceived legislation tell us that it would immediately release some 4,000 federal prisoners by retroactively increasing good-time credits, and would provide liberal good-time credits for participation in rehabilitation programs, with the exception of violent offenders. But heroin and fentanyl traffickers are excluded from the list of violent criminals, allowing these often multi-offenders to return to the streets early to ply their trade.

Left-wing group oppose HR 5682 because it fails to include sentencing reform—particularly reducing mandatory minimum sentences for violent and repeat offenders. That provision has been opposed by the Department of Justice and an array of law enforcement organizations, who have dubbed it the “jailbreak” bill.

Although criminal justice reform is viewed as one of the few bi-partisan measures having even a slim chance of passage, this one, thankfully, still faces  huge hurdles. Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley opposes the new House bill but is a strong backer of the bill passed earlier in the year by his committee. So, in the end, it may be a pretty good bet that those 4,000 early release candidates should not pack their bags yet.

Photo credit:  BOB DAEMMRICH/AFP/Getty Images

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