Prison reforms groups battle over strategy

Prison reforms groups battle over strategy
© Getty Images

Progressive groups fighting for criminal justice reform are divided over legislation that would allow prisoners to finish their sentences in a halfway house, home confinement or under community supervision if they complete education, job training, drug treatment and other programs while behind bars.

The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP are among the groups saying that legislation that fails to reduce mandatory minimum sentences isn’t worth their support.

“Before the [Trump] administration entered, there was a consensus in Congress on the need to pass sentencing reform,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Justice Program.

“Now that Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSessions: DOJ concerned about suppression of free speech on college campuses Faith communities are mobilizing against Trump’s family separation policy Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe lands book deal MORE is the attorney general they’re offering a watered down approach.”

ADVERTISEMENT

But #cut50, a criminal justice reform advocacy group led by Van Jones, the CNN host and former adviser to President Obama, sees the bill sponsored by Reps. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsHouse Republicans confident there won't be a government shutdown Lawmakers move to award posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to Aretha Franklin Connect Beltway to America to get federal criminal justice reform done MORE (R-Ga.) and Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesMeek Mill: I now feel a responsibility to 'help change the world' Connect Beltway to America to get federal criminal justice reform done Dem lawmaker labels Trump the ‘Grand Wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave’ MORE (D-N.Y.) that’s supported by the White House as an opportunity for positive change, even if it’s incremental. 

“It’s a bill that’s moving that we decided as a group we’ll hop in and try to make stronger because I think this is going to move with or without us,” said Jessica Sloan Jackson, the national director and co-founder of #cut50.

Instead of shooting it down, the group said it’s lobbying to make the Prison Reform and Redemption Act stronger. 

Sloan Jackson acknowledged #cut50 would rather have the Collins–Jeffries bill include language that reduces mandatory minimum sentences, but recognized the criminal justice reform movement has shifted under Trump.

She said #cut50 would like to at least win some changes to help people in prison.

At this point in the process, I think it’s stupid not to even engage in conversations with folks on the right and in the White House just because you aren’t getting everything you want,” she said.  

To supporters of broader reforms, however, the bill is a significant step down from legislation that nearly won approval in the last Congress. That bill, sponsored by Sens. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight Grassley: No reason to delay Kavanaugh hearing Dem senators back Kavanaugh accuser's call for FBI investigation MORE (R-Iowa) and Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinGrassley to administration: You must consult Congress on refugee cap Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment MORE (D-Ill.), has been reintroduced and would eliminate certain mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. It would also give judges more discretion in sentencing.

The Collins–Jeffries bill authorizes $50 million to be appropriated each year from 2018 to 2022 for the Bureau of Prisons to offer education, work training and other programming, but opponents say that’s not enough.

It also lists 48 different categories of crimes that make prisoners ineligible to earn time in pre-release custody for taking these programs, a provision groups backing broader reforms say excludes too many prisoners who are at a high risk of reoffending and need prison programming the most. 

“By cutting out or limiting so many people to get incentives to programming you are missing the point,” said Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. 

In a letter to members of the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, dozens of groups opposed to the bill said it would do little good if it does not reduce mandatory minimum sentences.

“Only front-end reforms have the power to significantly stem the tide of incarceration, reduce the exorbitant cost of the prison system, and give redress to those inside who are serving sentences that are disproportionate to the severity of the offense,” the groups wrote.

The Collins–Jeffries bill has won support from groups on the right that have backed minimum sentencing reforms.

“We’re big advocates for commonsense sentencing reform as well and we hope that happens, but we want to get the ball rolling and we think prison reform is a great place to start,” said Mark Holden, Koch Industries’s general counsel and senior vice president.

The network of conservative groups helmed by Charles and David Koch launched a $4 million pilot program in January with the Texas Public Policy Foundation aimed at reducing recidivism rates called Safe Streets and Second Chances. Holden chairs the program’s advisory committee.

Advocates say Jeffries and Collins have been negotiating possible changes to their bill, and a markup that had been expected this week was pushed back to provide time for their work.

In a joint statement to The Hill, Jeffries and Collins said their bill will reunite families and help thousands of Americans get back on their feet. 

“We have a broken criminal justice system that must be reformed in a compassionate and cost-effective way that helps people return to their communities and rebuild their lives,” they said.

“On this front, prison reform and sentencing reform represent helpful, yet distinct, policy improvements. The Prison Reform and Redemption Act addresses the former, making key improvements to the way prisoners are treated and equipped for reentry, which will ultimately reduce recidivism and lower prison populations.” 

Collins’s office declined to comment on if and how the bill will change. Jeffries’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.