Giving Life to Outdated Criminal Justice Laws

By Michael Hill

Since the 1980s and the crack cocaine era, the federal prison population has exploded by 800 percent, part of the blame — laws mandating judges give nonviolent drug offenders minimum sentences that some say are too long and don’t fit the crime.

“We are notable amongst humanity for being the most incarcerated nation on earth. It’s a distinction no one should be proud of,” said Sen. Cory Booker

Booker is among the critics and part of a group of senators who span the political spectrum and sponsor the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

“Until this is a system that can make us safer, save tax payer money and better reflect our values,” Booker said.

The bill would give judges more discretion by Allowing nonviolent drug sentences below mandatory minimum.

Reducing sentences of low-risk offenders in rehab programs.

Eliminate mandatory life for three-time nonviolent offenders.

Limit solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody.

Create more re-entry programs.

“When I first came home, it was a show,” said Tafawa Balagun.

Balagun struggled to explain where he learned kitchen skills after he applied for jobs after 30 years in prison for murder.

“Because things were so difficult, I had resorted back to crime,” said Balagun.

Robbery, six months at the Hudson County Jail and an introduction to Martin’s Place, the Jersey City Employment and Training Program focusing on prisoner re-entry. JCETP as it’s called helped Balagun with closing a job at a bakery, where he’s been promoted.

“And from that point, I’ve been doing tremendously good,” Balagun said.

“It’s at long last, it’s needed,” said Gov. Jim McGreevey.

Former Gov. McGreevey welcomes Congress taking action. He’s JCETP’s executive director, he says New Jersey is among a handful of states of reforming criminal justice.

“You see like wide swats of America that are in love with incarceration and what we don’t understand is incarceration has a cost. It’s $45,000 a year to lock somebody up for a single year, that a very expensive preposition,” said McGreevey.

Seton Hall University Law Professor John Kip Cornwell says Congressional action offers a teaching moment about over incarceration.

“The federal offenders represent only 200,000 of the 1.5 million people behind bars. So it’s not going to have a profound across the board effect, but I think it’s an important first step, which serves as a model for the states. Hopefully states will take a look at what the federal government’s doing and they’ll chose to do something similar and that will have a true long lasting and important effect,” said Cornwell.

The Sentencing Reforming and Corrections Act has a long way to go before becoming law, but the consensus is saving taxpayers money and reforming the criminal justice system are long over due.