From the Chicago Tribune:
In the early 1990s, with the nation besieged by a surge in violence and a crack epidemic, the American public and its leaders decided that there was no such thing as being too tough on crime. Federal and state laws provided stiffer sentences for a variety of offenses; new “three strikes” laws mandated life terms for habitual offenders. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of inmates in federal and state prisons doubled.
The upside of that shift was that a lot of dangerous people were taken off the streets for a long time. It no doubt contributed to the dramatic decline in crime that the nation has seen. But as the crime rate has plummeted, the prison population has only inched down. And it’s become clear that incarceration, like any useful method, can be taken too far.
The consensus for dialing back criminal penalties has now found expression in a bill called the First Step Act, which passed the House by a lopsided margin and now awaits Senate action — which it may or not get before time expires on this session of Congress. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has not committed to bring it to the floor by the end of the year.
He should, given its support among members of both parties. Thanks to the involvement of Jared Kushner, it recently won the endorsement of President Donald Trump. It has the backing of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the Urban League as well as the Fraternal Order of Police.
The bill combines a measure of mercy with a dose of frugality and a dash of common sense. It cuts mandatory minimum sentences for serious violent or drug crimes from 20 years to 15. It gives judges more discretion to spare mandatory terms for some nonviolent drug offenders.
It would let some 2,600 inmates convicted of offenses involving crack — which carried far heavier penalties than those for the powder cocaine — petition for early release. The federal three-strikes sentence would drop from life in prison to 25 years. Prisoners would get slightly more time off their sentences for behaving themselves.
These changes will save money. Though the federal Bureau of Prisons budget was trimmed last year, it is still up 31 percent since 2007, even though the federal prison population is down by 7 percent. Older inmates serving lengthy sentences are more costly to care for — and less dangerous to release.
Some of the changes don’t involve sentences. The Bureau of Prisons would generally have to place inmates within 500 driving miles of their homes. Pregnant prisoners could no longer be shackled, and women would get free tampons and sanitary napkins.
Inmates would get help obtaining Social Security and identification cards upon release. More money would go to mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Some conservatives, notably Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., think the changes go too far and some liberals, such as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., have said they don’t go far enough. But such complaints are to be expected of any legislation that is designed to appeal to liberals, conservatives and moderates. The package is a modest set of reforms that should help inmates and taxpayers without creating undue risks.
“I’ve been working on this issue for nearly eight years, and we have never been closer than we are right now,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said recently. President Trump has pledged to sign the bill if the Senate sends it to his desk, and McConnell should give his colleagues that opportunity.