The “resignation” of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have appeared to create a pathway for passage of the FIRST STEP Act, but now another conservative, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), is stalling efforts in Congress to bring about meaningful criminal justice reform that would give African-Americans a shot at being treated equally under the law.
The FIRST STEP Act is a bipartisan effort to reform the prison system by tackling unjust sentencing guidelines that disproportionately imprison African-Americans at a rate five times higher than whites for committing the same crimes. The bill attempts to keep offenders closer to home, and to provide educational and job training programs to low-level criminals. All three guidelines are incentives to make it less likely for an inmate to re-offend.
Sen. Cotton is not convinced the FIRST STEP Act would make any real difference and has suggested that drug dealers cannot be reformed. Instead, he called for increased sentencing. Perhaps the senator should do his homework to learn how re-entry programs consistently have resulted in the downward trend of low-level offenders re-offending. He should know that, in 1994, Congress banned inmates from receiving federal funds to pay for school, causing the number of prison college programs to drop from nearly 400 to just over 10.
To prove the importance of giving inmates a fair shot at redemption, Sen. Cotton can start his research in places such as Maryland, Minnesota and New York.
In 2015, the Office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City implemented a program, Aim to B’more, which focuses on reducing the rate of recidivism in Charm City. With the city’s homicide rate consistently surpassing 300 murders a year, and its high rate of drug incarcerations, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby decided to address crime and recidivism by giving nonviolent felony drug offenders the option to participate in programs that would put them on the right path and expunge their records after successful completion of the programs.
During the first 18 months of Aim to B’More, 42 defendants enrolled in the program, completed more than 3,300 community service hours and 27 job training programs. At the end of the 18-month period, 60 percent of the defendants were employed or enrolled in school or a GED program, keeping them away from a life crime and encouraging them to embrace a life purpose.
In Minnesota, a similar re-entry program led to a 72 percent reduction in recidivism; in New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice helped a former inmate, who served more than a decade in prison for assault, to earn a four-year degree in English. The Prison to College Pipeline at John Jay gives inmates at the Otisville Correctional Facility in upstate New York the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree. Studies have shown that when inmates participate in educational programs, they have a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prison; 13 percent were likely to be employed once released.
Sen. Cotton’s mentality is a barrier to criminal justice reform. The FIRST STEP Act is not perfect; some believe it will further entrench racism into our criminal justice system and give the attorney general too much discretion in determining an inmate’s risk of returning to prison.
Thankfully, a group of young, vibrant and politically-savvy conservatives and liberals is demanding the bill get a harder look and receive serious consideration. In the past, I’ve criticized Candace Owens for her less-than-tactful approach to talking to black people about black issues, but she appears to be spearheading the movement to force members such as Sen. Cotton to act. I certainly do not agree with many of Owens’ political stances, but when it comes to improving the quality of life for African-Americans and ensuring fair and equal treatment under the law, I can and will support her efforts.
There is clearly an endeavor from political pundits, states and educational institutions to bring forth meaningful criminal justice reform that does not rely solely on the “tough-on-crime” approach, which does not work. The attitude of “do the crime, do the time” will only result in skyrocketing prison populations, increased recidivism and unsafe communities.