President Donald Trump speaks about H. R. 5682, the "First Step Act" in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, which would reform America's prison system.
Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Opinion: A wrong step on criminal justice reform

Our criminal justice system may need reform, but the “First Step Act” that’s now headed for the president’s desk poses a significant risk to public safety — particularly for the most vulnerable members of our communities.

For aspiring criminals, mandatory minimum sentences enforce the memorable advice found in the theme song of the 1970s cop show “Baretta”: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” As a Pennsylvania state constable dealing with criminals all the time, I believe kneecapping mandatory minimums — as the First Step Act would do — threatens a throwback to the gritty lawlessness of that era.

We must not forget that our criminal justice system is meant to punish criminals. Rehabilitating inmates, rewarding good behavior and making it easier for families to connect with incarcerated relatives are honorable goals, but watering down tough-on-crime mandatory minimums is a terrible mistake.

Mandatory minimums stopped overly lenient sentencing, pervasive from the 1960s through the early 1990s, that prematurely put dangerous criminals back on the streets. Quite simply, longer sentences keep offenders off the street longer. While they’re off the street, they can’t commit crimes.

But, as U.S. senator Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, has noted, those convicted of “serious felonies” — including assaulting police officers, sex trafficking and hate crimes — could become eligible for early release under the First Step Act.

While it makes sense to periodically review sentencing policies to ensure they are appropriate and reflect societal values, taking the effective mandatory-minimum tool out of our criminal justice system would be a grievous mistake.

Mandatory sentencing ensures that our laws are applied equitably and that judicial discretion doesn’t devolve into judicial activism. And “safety valves” already allow leniency for first-time offenders, non-violent offenders and those who cooperate with prosecutors.

Early release would be especially harmful to minority communities because that’s where those released early will likely go. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, more than 52 percent of inmates serving mandatory sentences are Hispanic, 20.9 percent are black and 22.7 percent are white.

Project 21, the black leadership network of which I am co-chairman, has other criminal justice recommendations designed to improve the currently damaged relationship between police and the public.

A significant problem identified by Project 21 is that law enforcement is too focused on revenue-generating activities. Fines, fees and forfeitures are tools intended to help officers fight crime. But because they provide funding for police departments, local and state governments have the incentive to use them more than needed. Among the most overused is civil asset forfeiture, which allows officers to seize property they believe may have been involved in a crime. Property owners need not be convicted of a crime, nor even accused of being involved in a crime, for their property to be taken.

Minorities and the poor are more likely than others to be victims of civil asset forfeiture. Many are also being incarcerated simply because of their inability to pay fees and fines imposed to generate revenue. These are more pressing problems than resetting mandatory minimums.

Project 21’s “Blueprint for a Better Deal for Black America” recommendations include reforming those asset forfeiture rules and getting police out of the business of regulatory enforcement. Fines and fees should go into general funds to deter police from focusing on revenue-generating activities. Fines should also fit the crime and not incur harsh penalties that lead to people losing their driver’s licenses or facing jail time for minor offenses.

The Trump administration and Congress should be congratulated for their willingness to try to tackle long-overdue criminal justice reform issues. But the “First Step Act” is a step back.

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Council Nedd II is co-chairman of the conservative Project 21 black leadership network. He is a Pennsylvania state constable and rector of St. Alban’s Anglican Church in State College, Pennsylvania. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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