Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at email@example.com. She is a member of our White Collar Support Group that meets online on Zoom on Monday evenings.
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Ever since the conventions, when each party’s presidential candidate was finally confirmed, I figured criminal justice reform policy would come in a very competitive third behind coronavirus and the economy when it came to debate topics. But Proud Boys and COVID-19 infections got in the way and we weren’t talking about policy until the last presidential debate. And even then, there wasn’t much.
Criminal justice plans – and records – finally appeared and, instead of cementing President Donald Trump as a champion of smart decarceration, they proved that his heart and his head were never really in the reform game.
I expected the president to ham up the FIRST STEP Act on the campaign trail. After all, criminal justice is exactly where former Vice President Joe Biden is vulnerable.
Anyone who’s served time in the last 20 years lived the effects of Biden’s work in the Senate during the 1980s and 1990s. That’s when the 1994 Crime Bill – sometimes known by its full name, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 – passed, along with other laws that Biden had a hand in crafting, like the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, of which Biden was one of the first co-sponsors.
I’m one of those people. What affected me were the so-called “Truth in Sentencing” requirements for getting that funding under the Crime Bill. My state, Connecticut, repealed all “good time statutes” – traditionally referred to as “time off for good behavior” – laws in 1995, a year after the Crime Bill passed. Before that, inmates earned 10 days off for every month served. If that law had been in effect when I was in prison, I would have come home one year earlier than I did.
I was lucky in that, in 2011, the Connecticut General Assembly enacted a revised form of good time called Risk Reduction Earned Credits, so I earned about one year off my sentence.
But if the various laws Biden touted decades ago hadn’t been in place, it would have been two years off. In fact, without the 1994 Crime Bill and its local legislative progeny, I would have served only about 10%, or about 8 months, of my seven-plus year sentence before I was eligible for parole. I can see why people in my place might have a grudge against Biden.
Federal inmates got some similar relief from the law Trump put into place. As of May 2020, 5,168 of them had come home under the FIRST STEP Act, for a variety of reasons. The FIRST STEP Act gave Trump some decarceration bona fides that I thought he would gleefully rub in Biden’s face during the first debate.
But he didn’t. “You did a crime bill, 1994, when you call them super predators, African-Americans, super predators, and they’ve never forgotten it … and I’m letting people out of jail now …” is how Trump started, but he lost focus and veered into the subject of cops and how they like him.
The last debate served another opportunity but he blew it. For one, he didn’t even identify the FIRST STEP Act or what it did. He just repeated “criminal justice reform” four times over. He never mentioned that thousands of federal prisoners are home, that recidivism hasn’t seemed to be a problem, that at least by the letter of the law, women are supposed to get the sanitary supplies they request, although reports that guards still deny women tampons and pads persist.
He must equate the FIRST STEP Act – which he can’t name – with the Emancipation Proclamation; that’s the only explanation for the comparison to Abraham Lincoln. I’ve always resisted the idea that we seek reform of the criminal legal system for the exclusive benefit of Black people.
Not only is it not accurate – nearly half of U.S. adults have an immediate family member who was or is incarcerated; that’s 113 million people, more than twice the size of the Black population in this country – it doesn’t debunk what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the enduring myth of Black criminality,” namely the idea that Black people are more prone to lawbreaking than white people. It’s simply not true, even if 91% of the FIRST STEP beneficiaries have been Black. The reason is that the laws from the ’80s and ’90s were implemented in racially disparate ways.
What Trump wouldn’t say, because it doesn’t help him, is that his administration hasn’t really gotten into the FIRST STEP spirit; far more people can find freedom if his administration stops fighting them. Federal prosecutors have sought to resentence people who were released under the reform law, the Department of Justice rigged the risk assessment tool that qualifies inmates for the low-security status that allows them to earn prison credits, and the Bureau of Prisons has been stingy in granting compassionate release requests, especially at a time when they deserve expedited attention because of COVID-19. Even with this federal statute, Trump’s time in office has been less than Lincoln-esque.
Biden’s apologized for his laws’ unintended consequences. That, combined with his original platform, which was quite progressive and included providing for the health of incarcerated women – a plank that only Biden and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg included – is enough for me. I’m not sure why the Biden-Sanders United Task Force sapped it of all its flavor to create the Democratic Party’s final policy statement.
But Biden was hardly bested by Trump’s platform; it contains nothing about changes for the future. Just a bulleted mention of ending “cashless” bail, which can only mean extending the life of the current money bail system that persists in so many states and municipalities that strips people who haven’t been convicted of their freedom – where the Black men he’s allegedly helped so much are 50% more likely to be detained than their white counterparts.
Judging just by the numbers, far more people are free from incarceration because of Trump than Biden. For that reason, Trump walked into the last debate as the “reform candidate.”
But he didn’t walk out one. He showed he can’t even talk a good game, much less play one. If you’re voting on criminal justice Nov. 3, Trump’s not your man.
Disclosure: Author was an Alternate At Large Delegate for the Biden-Harris ticket at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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