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04keem ibarra 380519 unsplashIt seems that saying no has become the predominant response in American politics. When it comes to addressing difficult issues that profoundly impact our citizens and the future of America, the answer is too often no when yes makes sense. The great obstacle to knowing when to say yes is that doing so requires clear-headed reasoning and right motivation. In our time, both appear to be in short supply.

In my estimation, this deficit in politicians, and others, knowing when to say yes shows through in what is happening with the “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act,” or the “First Step Act.” I was made aware of this legislation when a friend sent me an article that mentioned it. The article was from The Associated Press under the headline “Pastor praises Trump as ‘pro-black’ at prison reform event.”

Here are some sections from that article.
• “President Donald Trump was lauded by inner-city pastors, including one who said he may go down as the ‘most pro-black president’ in recent history, during a White House roundtable on Wednesday, which was focused on efforts to reform the prison system.”
• “‘When we say hire American, we mean all Americans,’ Trump said.”
• “The White House has been focusing its criminal justice reform efforts on improving re-entry, rehabilitation and workforce training programs,  instead of sentencing reform, which many advocates argue would make a bigger difference.”
• “Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, has been leading the effort, which has included lobbying Congress to pass a bill called the First Step Act.”
• “The House passed the bill in May.”The First Step Act is summarized as follows in an article by Justin George titled “Is The ‘First Step Act’ Real Reform?”

“The bill, sponsored by Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, and Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican, seeks to add educational and vocational training and mental health treatment in federal prison. It earmarks $50 million a year over five years to expand these in-prison opportunities. It also expands the number of days in a halfway house or home confinement that inmates can earn for good behavior and self-improvement. It would expand the use of risk assessment tools – algorithms that try to predict future behavior. It bans the shackling of pregnant women; calls for placing prisoners in facilities that are within 500 driving miles of their families; and helps them get identification cards upon release.”

As I write this column, the legislation is with the Senate for action. Opposition to it centers around the following major points: It does not include reduction of minimum sentences and allowing judges greater discretion in determining sentences; concern that passing this legislation without sentencing reform could jeopardize enacting sentencing reform in the future; since only a small portion of the country’s incarcerated are in federal prisons, the impact of this legislation would have limited impact; the $50 million per year, over five years, for rehabilitative programs is seen as insufficient. Further, German Lopez writes the following in an article titled "Congress’s prison reform bill, explained.”

“But algorithms can perpetuate racial and class discrimination; for instance, an algorithm that excludes someone from earning credits due to previous criminal history may overlook that black and poor people are more likely to be incarcerated for crimes even when they’re not more likely to actually commit those crimes.”
 
Also from the Lopez article: “In the Senate, Democrats Cory Booker (NJ), Dick Durbin (IL), and Kamala Harris (CA) are normally on the side of criminal justice reform. But when it comes to the First Step Act, they have strongly opposed the bill – sending a letter on Thursday condemning the legislation as “a step backwards” and urging their Democratic col- leagues to vote against it.” The list of individuals and organizations saying no to this legislation is long. Among these are the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union. A May 21 letter posted at civilrights.org/vote-no-first-step-act-2 opens with this line: “On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the 108 undersigned organizations, we write to urge you to vote NO on The FIRST STEP Act (H.R.5682).”

The German Lopez article, referenced above, states, “Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who oversees criminal justice issues in the chamber, also reportedly opposes the bill because it doesn’t include sentencing reform – leading Politico to label it as ‘DOA in the Senate.’”

On the other hand, the list of supporters is also long. This from the Justin George article: “More than 100 former federal prosecutors are endorsing the bill. Conservative groups such as the American Conservative Union Foundation believe the bill is a no-brainer. ‘So disappointed to see a handful of Democrats oppose the First Step Act because Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren don’t want to give Republicans a win,’ David Safavian, deputy director of the group’s center for criminal justice reform, tweeted before the House vote. ‘Putting politics over the lives of those incarcerated – and their families – is just a horrible thing to do.’ Prison Fellowship, a faith-based advocacy group popular with evangelicals, also supports the bill. As does Families Against Mandatory Minimums. FAMM President Kevin Ring said he understands those holding out for sentencing reform, but he said it’s been years since any meaningful bills have passed to help prisoners. He said he believes Jeffries and Collins will not stop pushing for sentencing reform if the First Step Act passes.

In the end, where is the clear-headed reasoning and right motivation in what is presented above? On the one hand are those who are holding out for more when their central point of sentencing reform has not, and does not, have traction in the current political climate. Their purported reasoning is to not pass anything that does not include sentencing reform. Joshua B. Hoe, who served time in prison, writes this in an article headlined “Memo to Senators: Swallow Your Doubts About the First Step Act.”

“If the people who are left behind by criminal justice reform will be in no better or worse shape than they were before a particular piece of legislation is passed, we should still help as many people get home as we possibly can.” That assessment is reasonable. The argument for doing nothing until sentencing reform is included is like contending that if a cure for one form of cancer is discovered, do not make it available to patients until there is a cure for certain other forms of the disease.

Then there is the matter of motivation. Given the clear record of Democratic opposition to, and obstruction of, anything President Trump proposes or supports, their outcry against this legislation is to be expected. At best, their motivation is suspect, and that brings into question the credibility and rationality of their opposition to the legislation.
 
The saga of this First Step Act is just another painful reminder of how clear-headed reasoning and right motivation are disappearing from the American landscape.

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