By Marc Mauer
On Thursday, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner hosted a listening session for his father-in-law, President Donald Trump, on prison reform. Unfortunately, his plans don’t inspire much optimism, nor do the actions of the administration thus far.
The Trump administration’s criminal justice track record is shameful. Since taking office, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has promoted an aggressive agenda of reversing the policies of the Obama years, including reviving contracting with private prisons, urging federal prosecutors to seek harsher prison terms and opposing sentencing reform. Moreover, Sessions hasn’t missed an opportunity to stoke fears about rising violent crime rates during 2015 and 2016, and falsely attributes these spikes to immigrants.
Kushner’s initiative, while beneficial, offers little in the way of substantial reform. To date, he has largely focused on prison re-entry programming, providing services and supports for people coming home from prison. The re-entry concept was initiated under President Bill Clinton, received legislative support from President George W. Bush and has been embraced by corrections leaders around the nation. But important as it is, it’s only an after-the-fact response to crime and harsh sentencing.
Alternatively, a more significant step toward reducing excessive punishments and restoring fairness has been the introduction of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, sponsored by conservative Judiciary Chairman Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and leading liberal Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). The legislation would outlaw many of the mandatory drug sentencing provisions that have imposed lengthy prison terms in cases of drug kingpins and lower level offenses, alike. It would also restore a greater measure of discretion to federal judges so that they can consider the individual circumstances of each case rather than being forced to apply a one-size-fits-all structure that does a disservice to all. Further, the act would scale back some of the provisions of the notorious “three strikes and you’re out” statutes that have imposed sentences of life without parole even for a third drug offense.
Despite bipartisan support for sentencing reform in Congress, the legislation has been held up in the Senate by a handful of Republicans. After Senator Tom Cotton and then-Senator Jeff Sessions objected to the bill in 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not schedule the bill for a floor vote despite its passage by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
So where does that leave us today? More re-entry programming, the kind Kushner is suggesting, would be welcome, but a sole focus on that initiative reveals two grievous flaws.
First, the programming provisions being discussed on Capitol Hill contain no funding allocation. Apparently, there is hope that faith-based organizations will emerge to provide these services pro bono. Religious groups can play a valuable role in ministering to people in prison, but it is irresponsible to expect that volunteers will be capable of delivering professional services, such as substance abuse treatment, that are so urgently needed among the prison population.
Second, dropping the sentencing provisions of the Grassley-Durbin legislation from the Trump administration’s reform conversations guarantees that there will be no significant inroads made into reversing mass incarceration. Thousands of federal drug defendants will be sentenced to decades of incarceration and resources will be squandered that could more effectively be directed to prevention and treatment initiatives.
Shamefully, the U.S. will continue to be a world leader in locking up its citizens, a sad commentary on the goal of achieving liberty and justice for all.
Marc Mauer is the executive director of The Sentencing Project and the author of Race to Incarcerate.