Last week, I attended the United States Sentencing Commission Annual National Training Seminar on the Sentencing Guidelines which was held in New Orleans.
One thing I came away with was a different take on pending Federal Criminal Justice reform legislation than one would perceive given the recently (and constantly) hyped media coverage. In the past year, the coverage has the incarcerated and their families believing legislation approval is imminent and the prison doors are about to open.
I correspond with dozens of incarcerated people throughout the country and the emails have been non- stop since the 113th Congress convened back in January of 2013. But to be quite honest, this optimism has circulated through the Federal prison grapevine since the early 1990’s.
One of the conference plenary sessions involved a panel of 5 Attorneys plus the Honorable Patti Saris as moderator. Judge Saris is the Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Each panel member spoke about specific bills and current legislative efforts. Although Judge Saris had the passion and glean in her eye like a reformer from within the beltway, I found the information presented by the panel members less than upbeat.
For instance, there are currently several bills in committee often talked about including The Smarter Sentencing Act, SAFE ACT, CORRECTIONS ACT, Reauthorization of the Second Chance Act, Justice Safety Valve Act and The Redeem Act, with a variety of front end and back end focus all competing for passage in this allegedly united “Right/Left Coalition”. Even the panel members admitted things are changing daily and there is yet more legislation on the way to add to the mix. In fact, as I type this, Politico just released a story about a Senate Compromise which will be announced tomorrow morning.
Listening to the panel, I reflected back to day one of the conference when one of the commission members said something that truly resonated with my mantra. He spoke about “Reformers within the beltway” and “The Trenches”.
Though I am not from within the beltway; I consider myself a “reformer” in that regard who not only has the passion for change, but a pulse on the Federal system from the perspective of the “trenches”. I believe this type of practical feedback is lacking in the dialogue and legislative development. In my humble opinion and after working directly with the incarcerated for 25 years; current legislative efforts fall short from a practical prison policy perspective. Since my retirement from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), I’ve also come to notice some of the best legislative feedback is from pro bono, passionate “reformers” and our citizens who have served time in the system.
Sometimes I feel, we are squandering the perfect storm of a reform climate and it’s time to pass one comprehensive Omnibus Crime Bill focusing on both front end (expanding diversionary courts, addressing collateral consequences, reducing mandatory minimums) and back end (good time credit expansion and a build out of the community corrections infrastructure) reforms. We are just around the corner of the presidential election cycle and I hope Mr. Goodlatte and Mr. Grassley hear my prayers!