Don’t kick the can down the road on prison reform — now is the time for change
This article by Former New York City Police Commissioner and Right on Crime Signatory Bernard Kerik originally appeared in The Hill June 1st, 2018.
Last week, as Washington focused on a controversial House prison reform bill sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) titled The First Step Act, a few things relating to criminal justice and prison reform — both good and bad — got less attention.
First, Senate Democrats and criminal justice advocates immediately downplayed and criticized the bill, calling for more comprehensive legislation that would focus on sentencing reforms and mandatory minimums. The problem is, bolder legislation is likely not to pass this year.
Second, the director of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Mark Inch, quietly resigned after just nine months in the position. Word on the street was that his departure stemmed from frustration with Attorney General Jeff Sessions excluding him from major staffing, policy and budget decisions in his own agency.
Having run two of the largest law enforcement agencies in the United States — the NYPD and the New York City jail system, including Rikers Island — and, unfortunately, having served time in the federal prison system for three years and 11 days, my perspective is unique. No one with my background, experience and success in jail or prison management has ever lived inside the federal prison system as an inmate. No one.
I consider it a mistake to oppose The First Step Act, which would contradict the very mission statement and the goals and objectives of the BOP.
Think about it: The bill would end the barbaric practice of shackling pregnant women in prison; it would enable everyone in federal prison (except those serving life sentences) to earn more time off for good behavior, thereby enabling them to return to their families sooner.
For hard-nosed law-and-order types, keep in mind that we love to look tough and over-punish and, yet, offer little or no incentives for good behavior. Rewarding good behavior in a jail or prison system reduces inmate-on-inmate violence as well as inmate-officer confrontations, and increases programming attendance and cleaner, more manageable facilities.
This bill would keep families closer together by requiring the Bureau of Prisons to place incarcerated people within 500 driving miles of their home. The BOP urges inmates to maintain family ties, especially with their children, but then often prevents them from doing so due to long distances and exorbitant rates to make phone calls.
The bill would reform the federal compassionate-release program, so that taxpayers are not spending millions to keep locked up the most expensive, lowest risk offenders — and so that families can spend a loved one’s final days together.
Lastly, it would invest tens of millions of dollars in recidivism-reducing programming, which would improve public safety and give prisoners a better possibility of a second chance in life.
These are common-sense reforms. The bill could be more comprehensive, but a bolder bill might never make it to the president’s desk.
There is some good news. The BOP director’s departure could be the best thing that’s happened in prison reform in decades, especially given President Trump’s support and White House adviser Jared Kushner’s dogged determination to change an archaic, draconian system.
Historically, jail and prison systems are treated like the black sheep of the criminal justice system; without a president, governor or mayor who understands the need to fund correctional systems appropriately and to institute management-accountability programs that address fraud, waste, abuse and corruption, the system will remain in constant crisis.
We have a president who wants change; unfortunately, Director Inch was not seen as a reformer and succumbed to the status quo of the BOP, surrounding himself with career BOP executives who had no problem with the culture, outdated policies and lack of accountability within the bureau.
The next director must be willing to bring the bureau into the 21st century, and that’s never going to happen without the support of the attorney general and an overhaul of the bureau’s executive staff in headquarters and at the regional level. You cannot use the old guard and the same policies and expect change for the better.
A new director must understand the collateral consequences that come with a felony conviction in order to implement the appropriate vocational and life-skill programs to assist offenders attempting to re-enter society.
Unfortunately, although the Justice Department has promoted smarter offender evaluations upon conviction to ensure that it’s putting the worst of the worst offenders in prison, U.S. Attorneys across the country still take ethical, civil, administrative and regulatory violations and turn them into criminal conduct. Prison sentences for first-time, low-level nonviolent drug offenses and nonviolent white-collar offenses is a mistake.
As a result, it creates a permanent underclass of American citizen removed from the workforce for long periods — most for eternity — and costs the economy billions more than the reported costs of incarceration.
The fact that a felony conviction remains on your record until the day you die, and prevents you from becoming a whole citizen again, is exactly why the Justice Department should be doing everything feasible to ensure that only the worst of the worst are prosecuted and sent to prison. Sadly, that is not happening.
The new BOP director must realize that prison is nothing but a training ground for thuggery and criminality; there is no benefit to society when we suck all the societal values out of someone and institutionalize them, turning them into thugs. We cannot treat inmates like children and expect them to act like adults. We cannot demoralize and demean a prisoner and expect them to return to their communities a better person.
The next BOP director must be an agent for change. The president wants it, Mr. Kushner is moving the ball and, for the first time in decades, the administration has an opportunity to change the BOP for the better with the right person in charge. However, the attorney general and Justice Department must be on the same page as the president.
Bernard B. Kerik was the first deputy and commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, from 1995 through 2000. As commissioner of the NYPD from 2000 through 2001, he oversaw its response to the 9/11 attack. He pleaded guilty in 2006 to ethics violations and was fined, then pleaded guilty in 2009 to eight federal charges, including tax fraud and false statements, which led to his 48-month sentence in a federal prison. He is the founder of the Kerik Group, which provides clients with homeland security, police and correctional training, criminal justice and prison-reform strategies.