US Senate passes sweeping changes to nation’s criminal justice system

World Today

America’s prisons are growing.  Both in number, and in capacity.

“In the United States, we’ve been sending people away for too long,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research associate at The Sentencing Project. “And we know that when we look at what other countries are doing. And when we look at research about how long it takes for people to learn their lesson and move away from those kinds of choices and lifestyle.”

Decades of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws have filled up American jails, with many prisoners serving decades for non-violent offenses.

CGTN’s Roee Ruttenberg reports.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate moved to change that. “The overwhelming passage of this legislation I think speaks to a lot of things,” said Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, who also served as the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “But most importantly, the combination that we have up here of bipartisan leaders.”

The First Step Act passed 87-12.  All 49 Democrats voted for it, including the Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker.

“Our criminal justice system feeds upon the most vulnerable in this country: the poor, the mentally ill, the addicted, and disproportionately black and brown people,” Booker said after the bill passed.

The bill aims to give judges more leeway in sentencing. It retroactively reduces some existing sentences and looks to expand early release programs. But it doesn’t affect State and local prisons, which house the majority of inmates. Nor does it address America’s notoriously outsourced jails – privatized prisons.  Owned by corporations, they provided thousands of beds, and claim to do so at an economical price. As a rule, inmates at private facilities have to work. Most make goods, which are then sold outside of the prisons for profit.  Prisoners have dubbed it “slave labor.” They say they are poorly compensated, and that working conditions are bad. This summer, those complaints prompted the largest ever nationwide strike by inmates.

“We base criminal justice policy, not based on what reduces crime, but on what is going to drive the economic engines of the criminal justice system,” said Dana Kaplan, Deputy Director of Justice Initiatives at the Office of the New York City Mayor.

More than 2 million Americans are currently behind bars. In fact, the U.S. incarcerates its own people at a rate higher than any other major country: more than Russia, double Brazil, and almost six times the rate of China.

U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated he will sign the First Step Act after its expected passage by the U.S. House of Representatives. While many progressives in the U.S. Congress applauded the measure, they were quick to note it is, as its name implies, just a ‘first step’ toward comprehensive criminal justice reform.