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Five Prison Reform Ideas Being Ignored on Capitol Hill

Monday, 11 July 2011 04:36 By Shani O Hilton, Colorlines | News Analysis
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Five Prison Reform Ideas Being Ignored on Capitol Hill

Prisoners at Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., Oct. 16, 2009. (Photo: Monica Almeida / The New York Times)

After last week’s breakthrough in mitigating the damage of the drug war—the U.S. Sentencing Commission offered an estimated 12,000 people incarcerated on crack charges a chance at a sentence reduction—advocates stressed that it’s still up to Congress to eliminate the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity altogether and to create more lasting prison reform.

The lack of reform isn’t due to a lack of bills, however. There are many ideas already in the congressional hopper, they just can’t get any attention from legislators. Here are five prison reform bills that were introduced in the last six months, but haven’t yet made it out of committee.

H.R. 223: Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act of 2011

 Introduced in January by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee, H.R. 223 is a bill intended to get inmates who meet specific criteria out of jail sooner. Under the act, prisoners who have served half of their sentences would be released if they a) are at least 45 years old, b) have never been convicted of a violent crime, and c) haven’t broken any prison rules by engaging in violent conduct. As the prison population ages (one-third of inmates are over the age of 50) and drug offenders continue to sit in cells for decades because of sentencing disparities from the 80s and 90s, Jackson-Lee’s bill is aimed at creating some “relief” for prisoners and reducing the population overall. The congresswoman also introduced the bill in 2007 and 2009.

H.R. 1771: Justice Integrity Act of 2011

 The Justice Integrity Act is a bill introduced in May by Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen. Unlike bills that focus on prisoners, this bill is more interested in reforming the justice system itself. Introduced to “increase public confidence in the justice system and address any unwarranted racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal process,” the Justice Integrity Act of 2011 would first require that Attorney General Eric Holder to create a program in 10 states to determine whether race has an impact in prosecution and sentencing, then figure out what to do about it.

H.R. 1913: Byrne/JAG Program Accountability Act

 This is another bill that was introduced in a previous session of Congress, then ignored. Tennessee’s Cohen submitted the bill again in May of this year. H.R. 1913 would amend a 1968 law that provides grants to law enforcement by requiring that officials track and work to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system.

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H.R. 2065: Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2011

 New York Democrat Charles Rangel won’t give up on the Second Chance Act, a bill that would expunge the record of any felon who a) hadn’t been convicted of a violent crime, b) served a full sentence and completed all court-ordered requirements, c) had been free of alcohol or drug dependency for at least a year, d) received a high school diploma or its equivalent, and e) completed a year of community service. Despite setting a bar that would be challenging for many inmates to meet, Rangel has introduced the bill multiple times in the last 10 years to little support.

H.R. 2242: Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2011

 This is the bill that advocates say is needed to eliminate sentencing disparities in crack cocaine sentencing. Introduced last month by Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott, H.R. 2242 would toss out mandatory minimum sentences and bring the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine down from 18-to-1 to 1-to-1. This is a reintroduction of the bill Scott submitted in 2009, which, despite support from organizations like the American Bar Association, died in committee.


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