The FIRST STEP Act, which includes a number of substantive changes to the federal prison and reentry system, was approved yesterday in the House by a vote of 360-59. Among other things, FIRST STEP would
- allow inmates to accrue up to 54 days of good time credit a year. The changes would apply retroactively, resulting in the release of approximately 4,000 federal inmates, according to the U.S. Justice Action Network, a criminal justice advocacy group.
- ban the shackling of pregnant inmates, including while giving birth and postpartum. It would also require Bureau of Prison facilities to provide female hygiene products free of charge and increase available phone and in-person visitations for new mothers.
- require the Bureau of Prisons to place inmates in facilities within 500 driving miles of their families.
- increase the use of compassionate release for terminally ill inmates, and require new reporting on how many applications for compassionate release are accepted or denied.
The bill has sharply divided criminal reform advocates. Some, such as Rep. Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the bill’s co-sponsor, say it would provide better conditions and the possibility of earlier release for the roughly 180,000 inmates serving time in federal prison. “Any objective reading of this bill is that it will improve inmates’ quality of life,” Jeffries said on the House floor prior to the vote.
Others contend the good provisions in the bill are outweighed by core concerns over how the overcrowded, underfunded Bureau of Prisons system would handle the new programs and changes. Sen. Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Harris (D-Calif.), Rep. Lewis (D-Ga.), and Rep. Jackson-Lee (D-Tx.) have written a joint letter saying that the reforms would fail without broader sentencing reforms.
All Of Us or None, a California a California-based grassroots organization fighting for the rights of formerly and currently incarcerated people, has sent demand letters to ten California county registrar’s offices –including Butte, Contra Costa, Kings, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Clara, Solano, Tulare, Ventura and Orange — asking them to reinstate the voter registrations of thousands of people with conviction histories that AOUON believes were unlawfully purged from electoral rolls. According to AOUON, there are at least 3,000 such eligible voters removed in 2017 in Los Angeles County alone.
In 2011, a major California criminal justice reform — commonly known as “Realignment” — changed the law to require that people with non-serious, non-violent, or non-sexual felonies be sentenced to county jail or probation, instead of state prison. Since the California Constitution disenfranchises only those who are “imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony,” the voting eligibility of those serving felony sentences in county jail under Realignment was unclear for several years. Following a successful legal battle brought by AOUON and other community allies against the Secretary of State, the State Legislature ultimately passed AB 2466 to clarify that Californians who are convicted of county Realignment felonies retain their right to vote. As of January 1, 2017, state elections law requires local courts to provide to the county registrar a monthly list of people “committed to state prison.” The registrar is then required to cancel the registrations of people currently in prison or on parole. According to AOUON, county clerks appear to still be purging voters sentenced to county jail or probation on felonies.
The last day to register to vote in this June’s California primary election is May 21. For people who are currently in county jail, the deadline to request mail-in ballots is May 29.
The Kansas City Star reports on new legislation in that state compensating wrongfully convicted individuals financially for time spent in prison. The bill, passed Friday, awards $65,000 per year for every year an exoneree was wrongfully imprisoned. Initial payments would be up to $100,000 or 25 percent of what is owed. Subsequent annual payments would be $80,000. The payment schedule plan is telling: several Kansas prisoners were wrongfully imprisoned for so long that legislators felt it would take too many years to fairly compensate them without the higher yearly payouts.
In addition to the financial payments based on years imprisoned, the compromise measure also would provide free college or vocational training and health insurance. The educational benefits include books, fees and housing. And mental health coverage would be a part of their medical care.
For the exonerates themselves, it is about much more than the money: “It hasn’t been about the money only, ever since I got home,” said one man who served 17 years for a robbery he did not commit. “This is about bringing change, sending a message.”
What justice will entail: holding accountable those who had a role in wrongfully convicting them.
Legislators appeared to agree. State Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg, worked on the compromise and noted that legislators are aware of that objective:
“Compensation is another court saying you were wronged,” she said. “It will give even more weight to the process of going after those who had a direct hand in that wrongful conviction.”