Legislating Justice: An Update on Criminal Justice Reform Bills

The RAC works primarily on four issues within our criminal justice system: sentencing, re-entry, prisons, and juvenile justice. Legislation has been introduced on both sentencing and re-entry, making this an exciting time for advocates of criminal justice reform.

Reentry and Recidivism

Recidivism rates, or criminal acts resulting in rearrest, reconviction, or a return to prison within three years following a prisoner’s release, are high in the U.S. According to a recent report, nearly two-thirds of ex-offenders are back in prison within three years. The federal prison population is 40% overcapacity and conditions are often substandard. The Reform movement seeks to encourage “measures to modernize and humanize correctional procedures and institutions.” Additionally, our high—and increasing—prison population means that the Bureau of Prisons’ funding needs are steadily increasing as well.

In 2008, President Bush signed the Second Chance Act into law. The bipartisan bill created funding streams for various local programs aimed at enabling ex-offenders to reintegrate into society. Those programs have had a profound impact, providing assistance with job training, mentoring, housing, addiction treatment and other key areas. The Second Chance Act is up for reauthorization—and on November 13th a group of Congressional leaders came together both to celebrate its accomplishments thus far as well as to call for the reauthorization of the bill. In addition to Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), and Representatives Danny Davis (D-IL), Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Spencer Bachus (R-AL), leaders from the civil rights community spoke in support of the bill.

Sentencing Reform

On the sentencing reform front, a number of key bills are beginning to move through the Senate Judiciary Committee and will likely be marked up in the next few weeks. I’ve written before about what’s wrong with mandatory minimum sentencing laws: they restrict the ability of judges to exercise discretion, and have racially disparate impacts. The Reform Movement has called for legislation that would end sentencing disparities.  The Justice Safety Valve Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act would help restore judicial discretion, lessen racial disparities, and serve to bring about a less retributive criminal justice system.

It’s an exciting time for criminal justice advocates. Unfortunately, no single piece of legislation would fix everything wrong with the criminal justice system. But there is much room to make it right.

In this week’s parsha, we read the story of Joseph’s brother selling him into slavery. The brothers subsequently suffer from famine and become subject to Joseph’s mercy as he distributes rations on behalf of Pharaoh. But Joseph ultimately forgives his brothers—he did not let them starve. As we think about ways to make the world a more just place, let us recall this story of forgiveness, and remember that criminals are human beings, capable of reshaping their lives.

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Charlie Arnowitz

About Charlie Arnowitz

Charlie Arnowitz is a Legislative Assistant at the RAC, responsible for civil rights, immigration, and healthcare issues. He is a native of Highland Park, IL and a 2013 graduate of Vermont's Middlebury College.


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