Finley: Take First Step toward prison reform

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Our minds today are on gratitude, but there's another virtue worth contemplating: redemption. 

In the United States, we write off too many lives in the name of law and order. We lock up more of our people, and keep them locked up longer than any other civilized nation in the world. 

The cost in terms of tax dollars and the wasted potential of the incarcerated is insanely high.

But there's a chance now to do better. The First Step Act that passed the House last summer and was endorsed by President Donald Trump last week could, if enacted, free 4,000 federal prisoners immediately and help tens of thousand more break the recidivism cycle.

The cost in terms of tax dollars and the wasted potential of the incarcerated is insanely high.

It falls short of comprehensive reform. The package should have included a revamping of sentencing laws to end mandatory minimum prison terms and give judges more discretion in deciding appropriate punishment for individual criminals.

But it is the first time there's been serious momentum behind a federal initiative to bring both compassion and common sense to criminal justice.

Our corrections systems are far more punitive than they are corrective. Most criminals are locked away longer than is necessary to correct the behavior that sent them to prison, and while they are inside, gain too few skills they'll need to avoid coming back once released.

The First Step Act would vastly increase spending on programs to train inmates to return to society better prepared to succeed.

It faces opposition from an unexpected source: progressives, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder. Some Senate liberals are balking because the bill doesn't go far enough. They're right, it doesn't. 

Sentencing reform is a vital missing piece. Ending mandatory minimum sentences would allow judges to punish the criminal rather than the crime. Greater judicial discretion would keep many convicts out of prison altogether, diverting them to other corrective programs that are cheaper and more effective.

Pressure from prosecutors and police kept sentencing reform out of this bill, and that is a disappointment.

But half is better than nothing.

Passing the First Step Act would address a number of the wrongs in the federal prison system. And it would be a model for the states to emulate. 

Getting this first piece enacted could make it easier to pass sentencing reforms later on.

This is not an opportunity that should be lost because some senators choose principle over pragmatism. Nor should it get caught up in the resistance movement. Just because the Trump White House is pushing the measure -- presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is its chief champion -- doesn't taint its value.

Both the ACLU and the conservative Koch Brothers are backing the First Step Act. So are Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Sen. Corey Booker of New Jersey. 

In these times, it's rare for a bill of such consequence to gain broad bipartisan support.

The Senate should pass the First Step Act, and then get to work on subsequent legislation to assure American taxpayers are getting what they're paying for from their federal Corrections System.

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.