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OpEdge: Get Them Out of Prison

Marc Jampole
November 18, 2016

by Marc Jampole

PEOPLE WHO COMPLAIN that there is gridlock in Washington should understand that even with Congress and the President on the same page, the enactment of legislation is always an arduous process:

  • It has to go through committee in one chamber of Congress, which often means lengthy hearings.
  • It is then debated by the chamber, House or Senate.
  • It goes for a vote.
  • The other chamber of Congress sends it to committee, which leads to more hearings.
  • It is debated by the full body of the other chamber.
  • It goes for a vote in the other chamber.
  • A joint committee of both chambers reconciles all the differences between the bill that passed the House and the one that passed the Senate.
  • Both chambers vote separately on the reconciled bill.
  • The president signs it or lets it pass unsigned.
  • If the president vetoes the bill, the House and Senate can try to override the veto.

That’s a lot of process.

And what happens when a new Congress begins? Every piece of legislation has to start from scratch.

Which brings us to Senate Bill 2123, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. This bill is sponsored by nineteen Democratic and twenty Republican senators and has the support of both a number of left-leaning and minority organizations and the Koch brothers and others on the right. The Sentencing Reform Act is the first step to reversing the pernicious effect that mass incarceration has on our minority communities and our economy. In the 1990s to fight a thirty-year crime wave that was already ending, Congress and state legislatures everywhere passed a number of laws that mandated minimum sentences for many crimes, took discretion away from judges, and inflicted much harsher punishment for victimless crimes that African-Americans tended to commit, like smoking cocaine, than for victimless crimes that whites tend to commit, like snorting cocaine.

The result: The United States is now the world’s leader when it comes to people in prison—some 2.2 million, five times as many as there were forty years ago, even though the total population has grown by only about 1.5 times in the same period.

The inherent bias in these new laws has combined with the unfair and uneven application of existing U.S. laws to create a new “Jim Crow” -- a set of laws that institutionalized unfair treatment of minorities and represented an explicit double standard under the law. One in three black Americans will serve time in prison at some time in their life. More to the point, blacks serve about the same amount of time for non-violent drug-related offenses as whites do for violent crimes.

Left-wingers and the minority communities see the unfairness of mass incarceration. Rightwingers are concerned about the rising cost of housing so many prisoners. Economic experts across the spectrum of opinion worry about the impact on our coming labor shortage of having so many people in jail for carrying an ounce of weed or puffing on a crack pipe.

The Sentencing Reform Act would:

  • Reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses
  • Reduce mandatory three-strikes-you’re-out life sentences to twenty-five years
  • Give judges greater discretion in sentencing low-level drug offenders.
  • Apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively to people currently serving long prison sentences for hitting the crack pipe; the law was passed in 2010 to reduce the disparity in sentences for possession of crack versus powdered cocaine. The House version allows those still in prison for crack cocaine to apply for a lesser sentence.
  • The Sentencing Reform Act is not a perfect bill and only goes part way towards correcting the inequities in the criminal justice sentence. But it’s a start. A start that’s stalled.

Someone affiliated with the Friends Committee on National Legislation (who provided a lot of the information in this article to me) was told on Capitol Hill that the Senate is waiting until the House moves, because individual Senators don’t want to get burned as they did when they supported immigration reform and were left hanging out to dry when the House politicized the issue. No one seems to know why the House is not advancing the bill, although I suspect that it has something to do with Speaker Paul Ryan’s inability to control the misnamed Freedom Caucus rightwingers. I also wonder whether Senators and Representatives of both parties are afraid of losing the votes of the racists who would just as soon see us lock up more minorities.

Here’s a bill that has widespread bipartisan support, and Congress can’t pass it! That’s my definition of gridlock.

Meanwhile, thousands of people remain in prison for nonviolent and victimless crimes instead being productive members of society. And if Congress doesn’t act by the time the current session closes in a few weeks, sentencing reform will have to be reintroduced and go through the whole complicated rigmarole from square one.

I urge all readers to email, call, telegram or send a letter to your Congressional representative and senators to act on this matter before they go home for the holidays. It would be an early holiday present for thousands of prisoners, their families, the American sense of fairness and our economy.

Marc Jampole is author of Music from Words (Bellday Books). A former television reporter, he is a member of the Jewish Currents editorial board, blogs regularly (“OpEdge”) at our website, and writes frequently for our magazine.