Federal officials joined top experts in the fields of law enforcement, politics, law, education, and government in Washington, D.C. for a two-day conference to discuss comprehensive reforms of the U.S. criminal justice system’s sentencing practices.
The ‘Alternative Sentencing Key Stakeholder’ (ASKS) Summit, took place March 7 and 8 at the Georgetown University Law Center. The event focused on six primary topics: restorative justice, rehabilitation, recidivism resolution, fiscal responsibility, public safety, and evidence-based practices
Efforts to reduce mass incarceration in the U.S. over the past few decades have run into a myriad of political entanglements, bloated financial costs, and lack of constructive rehabilitation for prisoners. The federal prison system has been the target of criticism for alleged unfair treatment of many individuals, particularly people of color, through its incarceration of non-violent offenders.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, summarized the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, a bill he said has bipartisan support.
“Some people have called this the most significant justice reform bill in a generation, we have 28 cosponsors in the Senate, and it has a large cadre of organizations in the political spectrum,” said Grassley. “Many of you have come forth to hold hands together to make this a success. Even the President has said he would sign the bill if it comes to his desk.”
Grassley said the measure represents “reasonable and responsible reform.” The bill would reduce several mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug and gun charges, and also provide “time credits” on an individual’s sentence if they complete certain rehabilitative programs.
“So that we all agree that we need to reduce some of the harshest mandatory minimums,” Grassley said. “This bill does not eliminate any of those mandatory minimums, but it cuts back on the number of the most severe ones. And we all agree that we can do a better job of targeting those enhanced mandatory minimums sentences to the most serious violent and repeat offenders.”
Adryann Glenn, a former prisoner who is now an administrative assistant for The Clemency Project 2014, was part of a panel entitled “Collateral Consequences: Pursuing the Theory of a Second Chance.”
“We need to work on the reentry piece, that’s what I’m working on,” said Glenn. “When the guys come out, the opportunities are not there.”
Glenn said even individuals who are not part of the criminal justice system can help former prisoners trying to rebuild their lives.
“Just help them out, give them a job, accept them, be advocates for them, go to employers and give them the basic necessities,” he said.
The U.S. prison population has grown rapidly over the last 40 years, said Nicole Austin-Hillery, the first director and counsel of The Brennan Center in Washington, D.C., and a member of a panel entitled “Will Criminal Justice Reform Pass? Will it Make a Difference?”
“There were hundreds of thousands in jail and now we have millions. And these are not overwhelming crimes that are considered heinous—these are low-level, non-violent crimes,” Austin-Hillery said.
Along with Jesselyn McCurdy, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, Austin-Hillery used the term “mass incarceration” to describe the prison environment—though not all of her fellow panel members agreed with that phrase.
“I use the term because we have caught so many people in the system,” she said. “We need to use an alarming term to describe this because this is a crisis in the United States.”