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criminal justice reform
November 14, 2018

President Trump on Wednesday announced he is in favor of a bipartisan proposal to rewrite the country's prison and sentencing laws.

"It's the right thing to do," he said during an event at the White House. Called the First Step Act, this tentative legislative package adds to a prison overhaul bill the House passed earlier this year. It includes shortening mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses and changes the "three strikes" penalty from life in prison to 25 years, The New York Times reports. It will also roll back some of the federal policies from the 1980s and 1990s that disproportionately affect African-Americans and fund anti-recidivism programs.

Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is the biggest proponent of the package in the administration, and he presented the deal to Trump on Tuesday. Trump urged Congress to agree to a final bill quickly so he can sign it. There are 2.2 million prisoners in the United States. Catherine Garcia

October 1, 2018

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Sunday signed two new laws intended to make investigations of police misconduct more transparent to the public.

Senate Bill 1421 gives the public access to internal departmental investigations of police shootings and other professional misconduct, like violence, sexual assault, and deception. Assembly Bill 748 is the state's first significant regulation of police body cameras, requiring departments to make public any audio or video of serious misconduct cases within 45 days of the incident unless doing so would undermine an active investigation.

"Unfortunately, over the years, we the people have been stripped of the power to oversee and hold law enforcement accountable for their use — and abuse — of these powers," said Peter Bibring of the American Civil Liberties Union of California. "Having an open government that is accountable to the people it serves is not merely an ideal to strive for; it is a necessity to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our families and communities," he added. "Nowhere is that more apparent than in policing." Bonnie Kristian

May 2, 2018

Kim Kardashian West may be tweeting about shiny hair, Mother's Day gifts, and husband Kanye West, but behind the scenes, she's working on more serious matters.

Kardashian West is in talks with White House officials to advocate for a presidential pardon for a nonviolent drug offender serving a life sentence, Mic reported Wednesday.

The reality TV star took interest in 62-year-old Alice Marie Johnson's case after seeing a Mic video that recounted Johnson's conviction. Kardashian West has had several phone calls with Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and White House senior adviser, in hopes of convincing Trump to consider a pardon. Conversations have been ongoing for several months, reports Mic, and have apparently led to White House attorneys reviewing Johnson's case files.

Johnson has been in federal prison since 1996, convicted of facilitating communications in a drug trafficking case. She faces life in prison with no opportunity for parole — a severe sentence that criminal justice reform advocates say exemplifies a need for change. Kardashian West called the case "unfair" in October, and sent a team of lawyers to work on freeing Johnson soon afterwards.

A representative for Kardashian West confirmed to Mic that she has been in contact with the White House about Johnson's case. Read more at Mic. Summer Meza

August 20, 2016

The Justice Department said in a court filing Thursday night that holding people in jail purely because they are too poor to pay a fixed bail fee is a violation of their constitutional rights. This is the first time the DOJ has made this argument in a federal appeals court.

"Although the imposition of bail ... may result in a person's incarceration, the deprivation of liberty in such circumstances is not based solely on inability to pay," the amicus curiae brief said. "But fixed bail schedules that allow for the pretrial release of only those who can pay, without accounting for ability to pay and alternative methods of assuring future appearance, do not provide for such individualized determinations, and therefore unlawfully discriminate based on indigence."

The DOJ's reasoning particularly targets pretrial detentions of those arrested for low-level, nonviolent offenses — people whose release would pose no threat to society at large. This distinguishes between people held on bail because they're dangerous and those held only because they're poor.

The brief was filed in the case of Maurice Walker of Calhoun, Georgia, who was arrested for walking while drunk and held for six days in jail before trial. He could not pay $160 bail because he lives on a monthly Social Security disability stipend of $530. Bonnie Kristian

March 30, 2016

President Obama commuted the sentences of 61 federal prisoners serving time for drug crimes on Wednesday, marking the first round of major commutations the White House has planned for this year to reform the criminal justice system. The majority of the inmates will be freed on July 28, and some will be released on March 30, 2017. More than one-third of the inmates were serving life sentences.

"I believe America is a nation of second chances," Obama wrote on Facebook Wednesday, advocating for "hard work, responsibility, and better choices." Obama has now commuted 248 sentences — more than the previous six presidents combined. Becca Stanek

December 7, 2015

Voting rights for felons vary widely by state: In Vermont, everyone can vote, while in Florida, a felony conviction means permanent disenfranchisement. The last six years have seen as many states make significant (if varying) reforms to loosen voting restrictions within their borders, and Maryland may soon be the seventh.

A bill at the state legislature would allow felons to vote after their parole or probation is completed. Maryland's governor vetoed the proposal, which would restore voting rights to some 63,000 people, this past summer, but in 2016 a bipartisan coalition in Annapolis is expected to muster enough votes for a veto override.

"There is a recognition that we need a system in which voters and taxpayers see a good return on their investment in the criminal justice system and right now we're just not seeing that," said Myrna Perez, of the Brennan Center for Justice, which backs the Maryland bill. "That recognition is getting a tremendous amount of bipartisan agreement." Bonnie Kristian

August 22, 2015

Much of the talk surrounding prison reform in recent years has focused on lessening consequences for "nonviolent offenders," primarily in response to the war on drugs that has put many in prison under mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said he's involved with bipartisan talks in the Senate on reforming mass incarceration, but pointed out his long-held belief Friday in an interview with Slate that it's not enough to only worry about nonviolent offenders.

"Well, the reality is that we really need to start expanding our view of who we will ascribe opportunities for redemption to," Booker said. "Not just to these so-called nonviolent prisoners, but all prisoners who are worthy of redemption."

Booker also argued the line between violent and nonviolent offenses is murkier than most people think. For example, accomplices to crimes are often considered violent, even if the violence was not their doing. He told Slate this idea hasn't gotten much traction with other legislators.

"There's a profound, glaring injustice that's a significant part of our society that needs to be addressed," he said. Julie Kliegman

July 16, 2015

The U.S. has the world's highest incarceration rate, and the ACLU recently commissioned a poll to examine public attitudes on it. They found that majorities of both political parties (54 percent of Republicans, 71 percent of independents, and 81 percent of Democrats) agree that it's "important" to reduce the prison population. Sixty-nine percent of all Americans held that view.

In addition, fully 87 percent of respondents said that drug addicts and the mentally ill should be in treatment, not prison, while 77 percent said prisons are likely to cause nonviolent criminals to re-offend due to poor rehabilitation techniques.

Remarkably, there was even majority support for the idea that the prison system is not effectively protecting the citizenry from crime. Fifty-eight percent said reducing the prison population would help communities by freeing up funds for rehabilitation, treatment, and crime prevention. The full results can be found here. Ryan Cooper

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