prison

After the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a prison-reform bill last week that aims to better prepare inmates for re-entering society, a leading criminal-justice-reform advocate is blasting liberals for suggesting the legislation is a wasted opportunity because it does not include sentencing reforms.

The bipartisan “First Step Act” passed the House 360-59 but faces a much bigger hurdle in the Senate because of the demand for sentencing reforms. Organizations such as the Brennan Center for Justice call the House bill a “piecemeal improvement masquerading as real reform.”

Director Derek Cohen, director of the group Right on Crime, says opposing a bill for what’s not in it makes no sense.

“The idea that this is the only bite at the apple, therefore we should do something strong or do nothing at all is a completely self-defeating argument,” said Cohen.

“You are literally making that choice between a modest bill, the bill that’s in front of us right now, or nothing. I think that is a tough sell to these families that have individuals incarcerated and have to drive more than 500 miles to go see their relatives that are getting put in programming that doesn’t help,” said Cohen.

Liberal groups want Congress to address mandatory minimum sentencing, arguing that such policies force non-violent offenders to spend much more time in prison than necessary and make it harder for them to re-enter society when their sentences end.

Cohen wouldn’t mind seeing some sentencing reforms in the “First Step Act,” but he cautions there is no plan that would pass right now.

“The problem is there is no consensus as to what a package of sentencing reforms looks like, on the left or the right,” he said, noting that despite some common ground, the left and the right have some deep differences on criminal justice reform.

“Folks on the left tend to support more affirmative programs, like actually providing folks with jobs or compelling people to not inquire about criminal history, ‘ban the box’ as it’s known.

“The conservative answer to that is simply indemnifying landlords for renting to these folks … indemnifying employers for employing these folks. Make it more attractive for these folks to actually be hired,” said Cohen, who says employers often rave about the former convicts they’ve hired because those offenders are so eager to prove themselves worthy of the job.

So what is in the bill passed by the House? Cohen says it’s geared toward easing burdens on families and better preparing convicts to contribute to their communities when they get out of prison.

“It looks at how we have these folks in prison. What are we doing to lower their recidivism, lowering their chance of re-offending once they’re out. That includes criminogenic rehabilitation. It includes education. It includes training. It includes making the decision before we plug folks into one of those programs that it is a program that particular person needs, as opposed to just spinning our tires or wasting our money.

“It also tries to move individuals closer to their home to better facilitate re-entry, so that family can still come and visit and prison ministry that might exist in their community might be able to visit with them in their facility – to really deliver that kind of warm handoff we’ve come to understand in criminal justice, to make sure we’re not just shooting somebody out the door and basically hoping they don’t re-offend,” said Cohen.

In addition to calling for more targeted education and job-training programs, the bill also calls for a risk-needs assessment for prisoners who need help reacting properly to stressful situations and providing the help they need.

“That risk-needs assessment is basically an instrument that diagnoses the offender, and when it comes back it says ‘anti-social personality traits, anti-social cognitions, and they also have an anti-social peer group.’ Those three things alone are incredibly detrimental to success on re-entry,” said Cohen.

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