New act could mean prison reform now

U.S. House of Representatives

In the few remaining weeks of the 115th Congress, it is imperative that we witness the passage of legislation that will, among other things, overhaul the nation’s sentencing guidelines, and give judges the option of bypassing so-called mandatory minimum sentences that have resulted in the unfair mass incarceration of overwhelming numbers of ethnic minorities and poor people.

The legislation, passed in the House of Representatives earlier this year, and now being considered in the Senate, has the support of a number of senior officials in the Trump administration. President Trump seems inclined to support the measure, known as the First Step Act, which is supported by his daughter and her husband.

The law would be a tremendous Christmas gift for inmates in federal institutions who have received overly harsh prison sentences during the past two decades, and for members of their families, especially children, who have been damaged by their prolonged absences.

It includes monies for programs designed to end the tragedy of released inmates continuously returning to prison. It also calls for reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for those who have been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.

Outside of the Congress, the legislation is being supported by influential organizations and members of the nation’s law enforcement community. The country’s largest policing body, the Fraternal Order of Police, is supporting it, as is the American Civil Liberties Union.

The First Step Act is an example of significant bipartisan legislation that can be a model for other laws that emanate in the 116th Congress that benefit the American people.

Mass incarceration has been poisonous in our country, which has approximately 5 percent of the world’s population, but has nearly 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated men and women, held in state and federal penal institutions where responsible rehabilitation programs are uncommon and ineffective.

Criminologists, psychologists and social workers have concluded that job training programs, adequate housing and healthcare for formerly incarcerated people will lessen the likelihood that they will commit crimes, returning them to prison.

In the past two decades, our nation has been encumbered by a legislative mindset that mandated that people convicted of crimes should be sentenced to prison and largely forgotten.

That policy has been a disaster for our society, and it is now time to change it.

We must do it, not only for those men and women who have had their freedom taken away, but for our entire society. Justice, fairness and commonsense demand that we act, and that we act now!

U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson is the ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and the highest-ranking Texan on the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. She represents the 30th Congressional District of Texas.


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