The Kabuki Theater of Sentencing Reform

Editor’s Note: With Thanksgiving just a few days away, all of us at #BackSoSoon would like to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving. I know this time of year is tough for most of us. It is especially tough for me because I will be released two days before Thanksgiving in 2020 and thus I am anxiously awaiting the day. Take time to reflect on what you are thankful for and don’t necessarily look towards the negative. I am thankful for having a wonderful family who have stuck with me for nearly the past decade, as well as friends and associates. I am also thankful for people like Jackie, who without her help, #BackSoSoon would not be possible. So please everyone if you appreciate everything we share, send her a message and tell her thank you as well.

Due to the Thanksgiving holiday though, we will not be posting this upcoming Friday. In the event there is some type of breaking news, we will let you know as soon as possible. Until then, we hope you enjoy this week’s post by K.S. Remember that all views and opinions are that of K.S. and not necessarily those of #BackSoSoon.

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Mitch McConnell’s efforts to drag out consideration of the First Step Act until this session of Congress is out are disappointing, not because they are unexpected, but because they are completely predictable. There was no valid reason to delay a vote on this bill until after the election after all. This is a classic example of political posturing-being seen as “doing something” about a serious problem with the real risk of accomplishing anything.

Trump’s hostility to criminals or prisoners in general, and sentencing reform in specific made his recent support suspect. McConnell’s open opposition to the prior, much less beneficial version should have put these groups on notice that there would be serious obstacles to overcome to pass any bill. Yet, groups like FAMM, well intentioned as they may be, ignored reality and got everyone’s hopes up about another long shot.

Now that these obstacles have appeared, it seems that everyone has thrown their hands up in despair. “Oh well, things will take too much time…we tried…” If reform groups are serious, they should hold representatives’ feet to the fire. The bill could be brought to a vote tomorrow, sent to the other house the same day (or sent to reconciliation committee), and be on the President’s desk before Thanksgiving. Mitch McConnell claims that it will take 10 days is untrue, and should be exposed as the transparent excuse it is. If Trump and his allies wish to kill sentencing reform, make them do it openly and honestly.

The process also exposes an unfortunate trend among our advocates to needlessly excite us. Having been incarcerated for eight years, the First Step Act is hardly the first pipe dream to pop into my email box, promising that our collative incarcerations are going to be cut short. Each bill is the one that is finally going to go through, and with each failure, disillusionment builds.

Considering there is still a possibility this could be passed (or, at least, voted on), there is a very misleading exaggeration being spread about this law (likely by people knowing it has little chance of passing, so they won’t be called on it). The First Step Act contains a provision offering an extra 10 good days per month if one engages in “recidivism reducing programming”, which is true, and thus means an inmate may only need to do 52% of his sentence (85% minus 33%), which is false.

Most programming is not “recidivism reducing”, only programs like RDAP, anger management, Life Connections and certain release preparation programs (RPPs), which are all limited on how many you can take, and how often. ACE classes and most BOP programming does not qualify. And much of the relevant programming can only be taken within the last three years of a sentence. Moreover, that provision is largely left to the BOP’s discretion meaning it will likely (a) be limited beyond its terms, much like RDAP and the 54 good days were; (b) not be retroactive; and (c) be arbitrarily denied to certain groups. None of this is to say that these are bad steps, but it will not be anywhere near as good as pretended.

The First Step Act may not be the problem but it once again demonstrates just how broken our current system is, and that these problems extend even to the outside “reformers” and advocacy groups. It is more of a show than it is about substance.

EDITOR’S UPDATE: One of the last holdouts on the First Step Act was Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton (R), who unfortunately is my home state’s senator. However, Senator Cotton has said he will concede if a few conditions were met. Most of his conditions include changes addressing drugs, specifically fentanyl, but also that the good time fix NOT be retroactive. Again, these are just his conditions and does not necessarily mean that will be enacted or even considered.

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#BackSoSoon is a blog dedicated to helping sex offenders successfully reintegrate back into society. Our Corrlinks address is backsosoonblog@gmail.com and our website is www.backsosoonblog.com for you to share with those on the outside.