Take the ‘First Step’ in criminal justice reform

Every adult male who enters the Iowa Department of Corrections begins that journey at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC) in Coralville, where Bishop Thomas Zinkula celebrated Mass on Dec. 4. The prison is beyond packed, with 985 offenders as of Dec. 10; that’s 400 over capacity!

IMCC isn’t the state’s only overcrowded prison. Nearly 9,000 individuals were incarcerated in the Iowa Department of Corrections’ institutions on Dec. 10, 2018; that’s nearly 24 percent over capacity!

The men who attended Mass with the bishop are well aware of the wrong decisions they made that led them to prison. But they are also human beings, who in their essence bear the likeness of the God we worship; the God whose human manifestation we are preparing to celebrate during our journey through Advent. This Sunday marks the third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, during which we reflect the spirit of gladness that all Christians are called to express, even individuals confined in prisons.

A glimmer of Advent gladness is taking shape in, of all places, Congress! A bipartisan group of senators support a bill titled the “First Step Act,” which provides for criminal justice reform — including more humane prison sentencing. Sen. Charles Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, co-authored the First Step Act and explained his support in his Nov. 24 e-newsletter “The Scoop:”

“This bipartisan legislation would make historic reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system to restore fairness, strengthen public safety and reduce crime. The vast majority of prison inmates will one day be released back into our communities after serving their sentence. Unfortunately, too often, many of them go on to commit additional crimes, victimizing other Americans and costing taxpayers even more in incarceration costs. It is in everyone’s best interest to equip inmates with the skills and training needed to become productive citizens, rather than returning to a life of crime.”

Now, we’ve got to convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to do the right thing by taking “First Step” to the Senate floor for an affirmative vote before the end of the year. McConnell hasn’t ruled out a vote but is leaning against it because of the short time frame and his concern that the majority of the Republican Conference doesn’t support it.

Compounding his foot-dragging are scare tactics being employed by some of the bill’s opponents, who erroneously claim that the First Step Act would allow the release of violent criminals. That is untrue! Here are some examples of what the bill would do, according to Justice Action Network:

• Adjust the Bureau of Prisons good time credit calculation for following prison rules from 47 days to 54 days of good time credit per year (to comport with current law). The change would be retroactive.

• Allow certain prisoners to earn 10 days of time credits for each 30 days of successful participation in recidivism reduction programming or activities, including prison jobs. The bill would allow these prisoners to apply their time credits to transfers into pre-release custody, which includes halfway houses and home confinement. Certain inmates are excluded from earning credits, including violent offenders, sex offenders, leaders or organizers of fentanyl or heroin trafficking rings, etc.

• Require the Bureau of Prisons to place incarcerated people within 500 driving miles of their home or families, if security classification and bed space allow it.

• Reauthorize an elderly prisoner early release pilot program from the Second Chance Act of 2007, allowing elderly and elderly terminally ill prisoners to be released from prison early if they are at least 60 years old, have served 2/3 of their sentences and meet all of the other requirements.

• Authorize $75 million in funding per year over five years for rehabilitation and risk-reduction programs.

• Provide incentives for participation in rehabilitation programs for people not eligible for early release, including transfer to a prison closer to their home and family, expanded time for visits, increased phone and email time, and higher commissary account limits.

• Ban the shackling of women who are pregnant, in delivery, or in postpartum recovery.

• Make the Fair Sentencing Act (2010), which reduced the disparity in sentencing for crack and cocaine offenses, retroactive. Eligible individuals will be able to petition a court for resentencing on an individual basis.

“We’re doing all we can to show that this is good legislation and has broad bipartisan support,” Grassley spokesman Michael Zona told The Catholic Messenger. That includes President Trump’s support. McConnell has previously said that if Grassley could show 60-plus votes for the measure it would be brought to the floor. Zona said Grassley has about 75 to 80 votes.

Call McConnell at (202) 224-2551 and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn at (202) 224-2934 and tell them to take the “First Step” to the Senate floor. We are called to bring the joy of Advent, the joy of the Gospel to others, including the offenders in our overcrowded prisons.

Barb Arland-Fye, Editor
(arland-fye@davenportdiocese.org)

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