This week, a briefing took place inside the Library of Congress to discuss the appropriately named house bill H.R. 2944, The Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act. An audience of media representatives, congress members, interest group lobbyists, and other individuals invested and concerned with the criminal justice system packed the Members Room, awaiting the briefing from the panel of speakers. The panel consisted of a variety of point people on the issue ranging from former U.S. Attorney, Tim Heaphy, to a former federal prison inmate, to a victim’s rights advocate, to even the general counsel for Koch Industries, Inc. The primary congressional speakers were Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), which added to the diverse and bipartisan representation of supporters at the briefing.
Van Jones, a CNN political contributor, started the briefing with a general overview of the SAFE Justice Act. If enacted into law, the bill, according to FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), would “reduce prison costs and populations, save money, reinvest savings into law enforcement needs (e.g., training, body cameras, blue alerts), and protect the public by using state-tested, evidence-based practices that are reducing crime”. The SAFE Justice Act seeks to end over-criminalization, and break the cycle of recidivism, or relapse of criminal behavior. It uses strategies that were implemented in 32 states (such as New York, Texas, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Georgia, and South Carolina) where there was state-level reform that reduced both their crime and imprisonment rates over the past five years.
A Federal Prosecutor's Perspective
Former U.S. Attorney, Tim Heaphy spoke about his experience being a federal prosecutor for several years and his perspective on reform for the criminal justice system. He stated that he prosecuted people hard, and for the highest charges. The vast amount of cases he heard were drug related and non-violent he said. However, while he was a U.S. Attorney, he would prosecute on charges of conspiracy, which basically meant that although the defendant was not a direct perpetrator of whatever crime was committed, the fact that they were slightly affiliated with the direct perpetrator(s) and/or had a knowledge to the slightest degree of what possible crimes were being committed, it made them not only an accessory to the crime, but a conspirator by allowing it to happen. Heaphy would use this method to his fullest extent, until he later realized that the window of resources for prosecutors was diminishing because the spending on incarceration and prisons was increasing. This was to the point that prosecutors were left with minimal resources not only for themselves, but also for the prisoners. It was at this moment that he realized that there must be reform to balance out the budget for the justice department. The past 20 years has shown a dangerous trade off in which more money was being put into imprisoning people and less money going to federal assistance to state and local law enforcement, including resources for those convicted.
Federal Prison: Not Just for the "Worst of the Worst"
A notable panel speaker was Bernie Kerik, who had a unique set of perspectives on the issue by not only being a former NYPD officer, detective, and eventually commissioner, but also an ex-inmate of federal prison. Kerik was a leader in criminal justice as well as national security and crime and terrorist prevention. He was nominated by former president Bush to be head of Homeland Security, but withdrew his nomination after being investigated by the Bronx District Attorney’s Office. He pleaded guilty to two ethics violations, misdemeanors, in 2006, and then was indicted by a grand jury on charges of conspiracy, tax fraud, and making false statements in 2007 and served 4 years in federal prison. Kerik stated, “like many Americans, thought that federal prison was reserved for ‘the worst of the worst’ but I was wrong”. He stated that while he was there, he met many young adults who were first time offenders, and were charged with nonviolent crimes. There were many who were charged at the state level then turned over to federal prosecutors. It is not hard to imagine that some of these were juveniles charged as adults, and then somewhere along the line, were handed off to federal prosecutors or transferred to federal adult facilities due to overcrowding or lack of accountability.
We Cannot Incarcerate Our Way Out Of These Problems
Dionne Wilson, a victim’s rights advocate and survivor outreach coordinator for Californians for Safety and Justice, spoke on behalf of communities most impacted by the crime in America today. Wilson was married to a police officer and said that she, like many Americans, had an idea for what “justice” meant. Her husband was shot and killed in 2005, and like any person, she wanted the shooter to receive the fullest extent of punishment. Who could blame her? The courts agreed with her and sentenced a death penalty to the defendant. Yet, the verdict would not suffice, or give her any closure or peace of mind. After contemplating the issue for many years, she became an advocate for sentence reduction and prison reform to stop the cycle of crime in America not by being “hard on crime”, but by being smart on crime. “We cannot incarcerate our way out of these problems” she said, and with that she would be one of the most unlikely faces for incarceration-reduction and prison reform. She noted that she was very privileged to be in her position, as the wife of a police officer, many people would listen to her. But when she would speak to other victims of crime, such as the families and communities, she noticed not everyone was as well received. Now, she acts as a voice for the voiceless and advocates for prison reform that ends the cycle of violence, to really solve the root of the problem.
The Cycle of Incarcerations
Many other people from all backgrounds and expertise spoke to defend this bill, either from a moral standpoint, a fiscal standpoint, and a constitutional standpoint. The overarching support from the briefing was clear to be bipartisan, and diverse. The issue of mass incarceration is a pressing issue that has now demanded the attention and priority of the federal government on a scale of magnitude that the country has not seen before. PEW charitable trusts--who were also represented at the briefing--shared their research which has shown that prison spending grew twice as fast as all other justice department spending from 1980 to 2013. With the bill aiming to end the cycle of crime and incarceration, this could have a big impact on the youth of America as well. At the moment, youth tried and convicted as adults will often serve out their sentences into adulthood and in some cases, until death. This leaves them stuck if they are to assimilate back into society at the end of their sentence. Without proper resources for them, this leads to recidivism, and they will likely offend again. This is the cycle of incarceration and crime that the SAFE Justice Act is aiming to end. It is time for America to stop the cycle of incarceration not by being “hard on crime” but by being smart on crime.
Written by Tomás Perez, intern with the Campaign for Youth Justice. Tomás is a senior, political science major at the University of California, Merced.