Eric H. Holder Jr. was U.S. attorney general from 2009 to 2015.
Over the past decade, Republicans and Democrats across the country have joined forces to advocate for a fairer, more effective criminal-justice system — one that would keep us safe while reducing unnecessary mass incarceration. At the heart of that effort has been an attempt to reduce overly punitive sentences that fill our prisons for no discernible public-safety rationale.
But now the Trump administration is pushing a misguided legislative effort — likely to be voted on in the House this week — that threatens to derail momentum for sentencing reform. The bill is a tempting half-measure, but lawmakers should resist the lure. The chance to implement real, comprehensive reform may not come again any time soon.
It’s easy to miss, but the push for bipartisan sentencing reform has slowly been gaining strength. It was nothing short of remarkable when Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) led the Senate Judiciary Committee this past February to approve a measure that would revise the federal government’s outdated federal mandatory minimum sentences. Grassley’s move — in direct defiance of the administration — was the most significant legislative step toward federal criminal-justice reform in decades.
Unfortunately, this progress has hit a roadblock with the Trump administration’s modest prison reform bill, called the First Step Act. The bill seeks to improve prison conditions — such as by requiring that inmates be housed within 500 driving miles of their families and by prohibiting shackles on pregnant women. It also includes education, job training and other personal development programs, as well as a system of incentives to participate in the programs.
These narrow reforms are important, but they do not require congressional action, nor do they deliver the transformative change we need. The only way to do that is by amending the bill to include comprehensive, bipartisan sentencing reform.
Why is this so important? The statistics are stark and, by now, well-known. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. Mass incarceration is a core civil rights struggle for this generation: One in three black men will be behind bars at some point, a disparity that perpetuates underemployment in the black community and contributes to the racial wealth gap. The system is hugely expensive and ultimately unfair. And it is not necessary to prevent and punish crime.
It is impossible to right this wrong unless we send the right people to prison for appropriate lengths of time. That starts by making sure that federal prison sentences are smart on crime rather than thoughtlessly “tough.” The Justice Department worked toward that goal when I led the agency under President Barack Obama, blunting the impact of harsh mandatory minimum sentences by directing federal prosecutors to seek lower charges when possible. It worked. The federal prison population dropped while the nation continued to experience near-record-low crime rates.
As Grassley’s support shows, this is not just a priority for Democrats. He worked with Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and others to advance the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences. The bill failed in 2016 as a victim of election-year politics, but when Grassley doggedly brought it up again in February, it passed through the committee by a vote of 16 to 5, with support from several members of his own party.
Republicans and Democrats are enacting bold sentencing reforms at the state level, too. Texas, Oklahoma and Massachusetts are just a few of the states that have made changes to cut back on overly punitive mandatory minimum sentences.
Unfortunately, the White House has different ideas. President Trump warned of “American carnage” in his inaugural address, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has stoked false and misleading claims of rising crime. Bowing to the president’s most extreme allies, the White House has put forward the First Step Act, which leaves out sentencing reform entirely.
By choosing a tepid approach, the prison bill abandons years of work and risks making it harder for Congress to advance more serious legislation in the future. Meaningful sentencing reform will be less likely to occur if the narrow prison bill is enacted.
Fortunately, lawmakers have time to change course. They can ensure that any legislation includes sentencing reform, on which there is such strong consensus. Progressive lawmakers in particular should fight to extend, not abandon, the Obama administration’s criminal-justice legacy. Conservative allies such as Grassley have stepped forward for a shared strategy and needed policies; Democrats should stand with them.
Nobody is under any illusions: Criminal-justice reform is hard. The White House might scuttle the bill entirely, and wavering members of Congress might balk. But to reform America’s prisons, we must change the laws that send people to them in the first place. Anything less represents a failure of leadership.
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