Prison reform is necessary to establish justice

To end mass incarceration, the US needs a series of prison reforms. (Rennett Stowe, Flickr)

End Mandatory Minimums

In 2016, 55% of the federal prison population had been sentenced under a mandatory minimum. Families were separated for years, judges were stripped of prosecutorial discretion, racial disparities were exacerbated. Longer sentences were shown to do nothing to improve community safety, but they were proven to increase human suffering and reduce the likelihood of rehabilitation. Today, every state and DC has mandatory minimum sentencing. President Joe Biden pledged to end the sentencing practice while on the campaign trail but there has been little action from his Justice Department.

The Blueprint for a Better America would end mandatory minimum sentences at the federal level. (Piqsels)

Sentencing Review After 10 Years

Matthew Charles was sentenced to a 35-year life sentence in 1996 for selling 216 grams of crack cocaine and illegally possessing a gun. The judge at his sentencing described him as a “danger to society.” As Charles began serving his sentence, he made a concerted effort at rehabilitation. He studied the Bible, spent hours in the prison law library, and helped illiterate inmates understand the letters they were receiving from courts and their families. Despite being a model in rehabilitation, Matthew Charles did not receive a sentencing review until 2016. At that time, he was released and then reincarcerated due to an administrative error. Luckily, the 2018 First Step Act enabled his permanent release. But that’s not the case for many other people serving lengthy sentences. As a result, some members of society are condemned to lengthy sentences and unable to earn a second chance.

Repeal the Prison Litigation Reform Act

In the 1994 midterm elections, the Republicans’ Contract with America contained a proposal to restrict incarcerated people’s access to the judicial system. President Bill Clinton signed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) into law, making it more difficult for incarcerated people to file civil rights cases or seek legal protections. The reform led to a sharp increase in dismissed prison lawsuits, including those related to misconduct and unconstitutional conditions. Incarcerated plaintiffs were forced to fully exhaust all internal grievance processes within the prison before bringing their case to court.

Fully Restore Pell Grants

Also in 1994, Congress blocked incarcerated students from accessing Pell grants for higher education. The 23,000 people affected made up 0.2% of the recipients, demonstrating the capriciousness of Congress’ actions. Higher education is linked to improved chances of finding stable housing, long-term employment, and establishing family stability. Studies have shown that access to postsecondary education in prisons or jails can reduce recidivism by up to half and save over $365 million in state spending on detention.

Congress must fully restore Pell Grants for incarcerated people. (Piqsels)

Repeal Incarceration Incentive Grants

One of the most consequential drivers of mass incarceration was the federal incentivization of it through grants. As part of the 1994 crime bill, the Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing (VOI/TIS) Incentive Formula Grant Program ensured states had funds to build prisons and jails to incarcerate offenders “for substantial periods of time.” States were only considered eligible for the grants if they enacted truth-in-sentencing laws requiring violent offenders to serve at least 85% of their sentence, and Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, and Virginia adopted them within a year. Although the grant program has ended, the enabling law will be permanently struck with by section 165 of the BBA.

ID for People Leaving Prison

Thousands of people are released from prison every week and many of them are sent back into the world without a government-issued ID. Oftentimes, their photo ID expired during their sentence. Without a valid ID, people who served their time remain locked out of everyday life. Finding housing, getting a job, receiving medical care, banking, accessing government benefits, like Medicaid or food stamps are all impossible without an ID.

Limit Solitary Confinement

The negative effects of solitary confinement have been known for centuries. It inflicts unnecessary suffering on people. It dramatically increases the risk of self-harm and suicide. It worsens mental health and makes it more difficult for people to reintegrate into society. Yet in the United States, tens of thousands of people are held in solitary confinement for months and years at a time.

Close Guantánamo Bay Military Prison

The detention center in Guantánamo Bay is one of the world’s most infamous prisons. Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the prison became a stunning example of America’s willingness to suspend habeas corpus, commit torture, and indefinitely detain individuals without formal charges or a trial. After more than 20 years, 37 men remain in Gitmo, including 18 who have been approved for repatriation and resettlement by the prison review board. The cost of incarcerating these individuals is $500 million per year. The Supreme Court has upheld that many traditional legal protections do not apply to individuals held there because it is outside the territorial United States.

Universal Suffrage

The ability to vote is the most basic constitutive act of citizenship, by which people can secure the blessings of liberty. Basic constitutional principles of fairness and equal protection require an equal opportunity for all citizens of the United States to vote in Federal elections. Even Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert recently proclaimed her support for this concept, tweeting “One citizen. One vote. End of story.” Section 503 of the BBA would establish universal suffrage.

Building a better America in 2022

The reforms in the Blueprint for a Better America are necessary in pursuit of our constitutional obligation to establish justice, but, just as importantly, to address the moral miscarriages imposed by our prison system. When human dignity is disrespected, when rehabilitation goes unrecognized, when a person is warehoused away, when life is squandered — it is an affront to all that silently consent.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Phoenix Congress

Phoenix Congress

Challenging the duopoly with crowdsourced legislative solutions since 2019.