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EDITORIAL: Donald Trump joins the fight, we hope, to end draconian prison sentences

The population at Cook County Jail has dropped below 5,900 for the first time in decades. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Cook County Jail | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

On Thursday, for the first time in decades, the inmate population at Cook County Jail dipped below 5,900.

It was a welcomed milestone, another sign that criminal justice reform is making headway.

But much more work is necessary, in Illinois and nationally, and President Donald Trump, of all people, signaled this week that he might just get on board.

In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators is pushing to rewrite draconian federal sentencing laws to give judges more discretion in sentencing offenders for nonviolent crimes, especially drug offenses. The senators also want to improve rehabilitation programs for former prison inmates and reduce “three strike” prison sentences from life to 25 years.


On Wednesday, Trump announced his support for these initiatives, called the First Step Act.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., released a joint statement saying the legislation would “quickly take a critical first step towards reforming our criminal justice system.”

Even the Fraternal Order of Police, which in February opposed similar efforts, is backing the idea.

But even if the U.S. House, which has passed a less foresighted bill, signs on to the senators’ plan, nothing in the legislation would make sentencing reform retroactive. The sole exception would be with respect to sentences for crack cocaine convictions, which typically are unfairly longer than sentences for powder cocaine.

That big hole in the Senate bill — the failure to address overly harsh sentences imposed in the past — makes no sense. If we can all agree now that a particular sentence is overly punitive for someone who, say, committed a nonviolent drug offense, why shouldn’t someone who made the same mistake years ago be eligible for a similar sentencing reduction?

The Illinois Legislature, meanwhile, has enacted a number of criminal justice reforms that have begun to shrink the state’s prison populations and the rate of recidivism, but at an unnecessarily slow pace.

To cite one small but frustrating example: Everyone seems to agree that it would make sense to issue state ID cards to people when they leave prison. Without that ID, it’s tough for ex-inmates to apply for jobs and find housing, making it less likely they will stay out of trouble and become productive members of society.

But while the state has waived some fees for the official documents — such as birth certificates, which inmates need to get a state ID — the state has yet to actually start issuing the IDs to people leaving prison. We see a bureaucratic failure of will.

Similarly, the SAFE Act, a bill that targets more state money toward the communities most in need of violence prevention and reduction, died in a House committee this year after passing in the Senate. It has not been called in the current veto session in Springfield.

And in a classic case of one step forward and one step back, state spending cuts forced by the two-year budget impasse crippled both the adult and juvenile versions of Redeploy Illinois. This is a program, of proven effectiveness, to divert nonviolent offenders from prisons by providing higher quality community-based services.

In Cook County, the courts have rolled out a bond-reduction program that has significantly reduced the number of people who must remain in jail while awaiting trial because they can’t pay their bail. But, here again, reform has a ways to go. As of Wednesday, 243 men and women were in jail who needed $1,000 or less to be freed. One of those inmates, who uses an external cardiac defibrillator, needs just $100 to be released.

Millions of Americans have come to realize that our nation’s long experiment with harsh sentences has failed. It has filled our prisons and made it extremely difficult for ex-inmates to successfully re-enter society. They leave prison after serving long sentences with no understanding of modern technology. Some have never even touched a smartphone.

When they turn to crime again, nobody should be surprised.

Our nation locks up too many people for too long, and it’s just got to end.

Welcome to the cause, President Trump. Show us you mean it.

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