The Stew Reporting on government and politics

Lawmakers seek end to justice reform stalemate

Politics | After years of inaction, 2018 could bring needed reforms to the prison system
by Evan Wilt
Posted 3/22/18, 03:08 pm

WASHINGTON—An exorbitant number of inmates languish behind bars in the United States, a problem compounded by high incarceration costs and abysmal recidivism rates.

Some lawmakers have joined advocates’ calls for a drastic overhaul to the justice system, including reforming federal sentencing laws. But without an endorsement from the Trump administration, Congress is taking a more modest approach this year in hopes of making progress after years of inaction.

Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) would like to see sentencing laws change—particularly for nonviolent drug offenders—but instead are pushing a less controversial prison reform bill to help inmates successfully return to society after serving their time behind bars.

“Prison reform is something we can all get behind,” Collins told me.

Their bill, The Prison Reform and Redemption Act, focuses on rehabilitation and job training ahead of an inmate’s release from federal prison. If passed, it would provide incentives for prisoners to enroll in programs that have a proven track record by establishing a post-sentencing risk-and-needs assessment. Prisoners would have the opportunity to participate in an individualized, evidence-based plan instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.

Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship, told me such an obvious improvement should already be common practice in the justice system.

“We’re accepting failure in a system where we should not be accepting failure,” he said. If hospitals made patients sicker or schools took knowledge away from children, Americans would be outraged, he noted, so why is it OK for criminals to leave prison and go back to committing crimes?

Each day the United States incarcerates 2.3 million people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Nearly half of U.S. prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, including 457,000 drug offenders. More than 625,000 inmates leave prison each year and about two-thirds return to crime within three years of release, according to a January report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

President Donald Trump declared during his State of the Union address in January that the United States needs to embark on an effort to improve those numbers and give people a second chance at life.

In response, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation last month to reform sentencing laws.

But Attorney General Jeff Sessions blasted the bill and urged lawmakers to abandon the legislation. In subsequent meetings with the White House, Trump administration officials told lawmakers the president doesn’t support sentencing reform at this time and urged Congress to focus on prison reform instead.

Grassley vowed to keep drumming up support for his sentencing bill in an attempt to secure a full vote in the Senate, but that appears unlikely.

Collins told me he expects the House Judiciary Committee to mark up his legislation after Congress returns from its Easter break in April, with a full vote soon after.

DeRoche said Prison Fellowship would work with other advocacy groups to continue building momentum for criminal justice reforms. A campaign launched last year included left-leaning groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for American Progress, along with conservative organizations like FreedomWorks and the Heritage Foundation.

Facebook Facebook Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill.

Pro-life Democrat hangs on by a thread

Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., narrowly fended off a well-funded primary challenge this week that tested the pulse of pro-life Democrats.

First-time candidate Marie Newman took in millions of dollars of outside money and won major endorsements from liberal icons like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the attempt to oust one of the Democratic Party’s most conservative lawmakers.

With nearly 90,000 ballots counted, Lipinski clung to a 1,600-vote lead, prompting Newman to concede defeat a day after the election.

Lipinski easily won reelection each term since joining Congress in 2005. Newman stepped into this year’s race as a 24-point underdog but nearly erased that deficit by Election Day.

As the Democratic Party continues to veer left on many issues, including abortion, the Illinois primary drew the national spotlight as a test of pro-life Democrats’ chances for survival in 2018.

The brunt of the push against Lipinski came from pro-abortion and LGBT advocacy groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and EMILY’s List.

“This should be a wake-up call to Dan Lipinski,” HRC senior vice president JoDee Winterhof warned in a statement. “If Dan Lipinski continues down the wrong path, he will not get a second chance the next time his constituents head into the voting booth.”

The HRC and other outside groups spent more than $1.6 million in anti-Lipinski ads and dispatched volunteers to knock on doors and make calls urging voters to abandon him.

But pro-life groups rushed to Lipinski’s side to help counter the onslaught.

The Susan B. Anthony List fielded a 70-person team to visit 17,000 homes in Illinois ahead of the primary, spending more than $100,000 to boost Lipinski.

“We are thrilled with Congressman Lipinski’s victory over Marie Newman and the abortion industry which is increasingly pushing the Democratic Party left on abortion,” SBA List president Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement. “This is a win not only for Rep. Lipinski and the pro-life movement but for the majority of Americans who support common ground pro-life policies.” —E.W.

Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson

Carson’s THUD

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson attempted to explain Tuesday how his office ordered a $31,000 dining set, but he may have made matters worse.

“When I assumed the position I was told that, traditionally, secretaries redecorate their offices,” Carson told the House Appropriations Committee. “You know I'm not really big into decorating. If it were up to me, my office would probably look like a hospital waiting room. At any rate, I invited my wife in to come help me.”

Carson went on to explain that he needed a new dining set for safety reasons since a chair in the old set broke while someone was using it. Carson said he wasn’t involved in the purchase of the lavish table and chairs and left it up to his wife, Candy.

“The next thing that I quite frankly heard about it was this $31,000 table had been bought,” Carson said. “I said, ‘What the heck is this all about?’”

He noted that he quickly canceled the order.

Carson has been under fire for the last month over a purchase seen as an abuse of taxpayer dollars. But his lack of transparency regarding the collateral damage within the department only compounded the problem.

Katrina Hubbard, one of Carson’s former aides, told the Guardian HUD reassigned her and then fired her in January after flagging the expensive dining set.

Last month The New York Times reported Helen Foster, another HUD employee, filed a complaint after getting a reprimand for not executing the expensive office furniture purchases for Carson. She said she had been instructed to “find money” for redecoration, even though budgetary limits require office redecorations not exceed $5,000.

Carson told the committee he wasn’t aware of anyone at HUD getting punished for whistleblowing.

But his explanation still leaves many questions unanswered, and Carson did little to shift culpability, other than blaming his wife. E.W.

Trump’s plan to kill the opioid epidemic

President Donald Trump floated a new proposal to combat the opioid crisis during a speech Monday in New Hampshire. The plan includes pursuing the death penalty for some drug offenders, controversial statements that sparked opposition from both sides of the aisle. But the Trump administration hasn’t backed down. On Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told federal prosecutors they can pursue the death penalty for some drug crimes. But seeking the death penalty for nonviolent drug dealing could set up legal challenges. Executions are rare for any crime, and there’s little precedent for capital punishment for crimes not involving homicide. E.W.

Evan Wilt

Evan is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Washington, D.C.

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