Synopsis: American legislators in the 1980s and 1990s tried to curb rising crime by introducing Draconian prison sentences and taking away the right of judges to set punishments. Now, common sense may be prevailing as those reforms are ready to be rolled back, yet ultra conservatives may stand in the way.
First Step Act Would Modify Prison Sentences, Reduce Minimums And Open Paths For Rehabilitation
Proposed changes to the ways Americans are locked up — and for how long — may happen sooner than later. A bipartisan bill to modify, and sometimes eliminate, mandatory sentences is overdue say advocates.
Opponents claim the changes will only increase crime.
The argument may be premature. The bill hasn’t even been signed yet.
More Judicial Leeway in Sentencing
A bipartisan proposal to modify the country’s sentencing laws pass a major obstacle on its way to overhaul the federal corrections system.
Even with the administration support, lawmakers are staring at a year-end deadline to approve the bill before Congress takes a break and the current session ends.
First Step Act
The proposal, call the First Step Act, will make several changes to current prison and sentencing guidelines.
Federal judges are given more discretion to bypass the current mandatory minimums. They can also lighten sentences linked to drugs. The largest demographic group to be affected will be African-Americans. Historically blacks have faced higher incarceration rates on drug-related crimes than whites. Under the proposed guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences for serious violent — or drug offenses — will be reduced to 15-years, down from 20-years.
For decades, critics of the mandatory sentence laws point to a disproportionate impact among blacks who have been sentenced to longer periods behind bars than whites convicted of powder cocaine offenses.
The new law would also wipe out the “three strikes” penalty. First written in the 1980s, the three strikes rule dictates offenders get life in prison after committing a third crime. Long criticized, the penalty may mean an individual may serve a life sentence for minor crimes. Instead of mandatory life, the sentence will be reduced to 25-years. The convicted who could receive the penalty would be narrowed.
Sentences will not be ‘stacked’ for first-time offenders. Presently, if offenders are found to be in possession, or use, of a firearm while committing other federal crimes, they face an additional five to 25 years for each offense. The elimination of “stacking” will impact about 60 offenders annually.
Inmates will be given new incentives in prison. They will be rewarded more for consecutive days of good behavior as the Federal Bureau of Prisons is forced to modify the current incentives. For example, if an inmate takes part in an activity to address recidivism, they get days off their sentences.
No Shackles For Pregnant Inmates
Women in federal custody will no longer be shackled while behind bars. Women have been in labor while their legs were shackles, but under the new law, corrections officers can no long restrain pregnant inmates.
Stephanie Nodd was sentenced to 30-years behind bars for a brief connection to a crack cocaine ring. Released in 2011 after serving over 21-years, she had given birth while shackled.
“The change should have happened years ago. You can’t imagine a pregnant woman giving birth in shackles,” Nodd said. “Having experienced that, I don’t want anyone else to go through that.”
Leave Them Alone
Advocates point to persons who do not need to be in prison and should be released to be monitored at home or simply left alone. The prison system is filled with persons with addiction and mental illness. Treatment is a better choice than incarceration. Some advocates call for changes at the such as limited the number of offenses, reducing the power of prosecutors and beef up the public defender system.
Support for overhauling the system has been growing in recent years. America lock up more people than any other nation in the world, even while crime has been on the decline.
Repeated studies show the nation’s system of punishment is counterproductive and results in high rates of recidivism. Even brief stays in jail disrupt people’s lives and they are more apt to commit crimes.
“Many states have realized, without significant changes, they will be spending an increasing portion of their budgets on locking people up,” said Arkady Bukh, a noted Brooklyn defense attorney.
“One day makes a difference because you don’t know what that one day can mean in a person’s life,” Bukh added.