Friday, July 18, 2014

Two Parties Are Better Than One: The REDEEM Act

 By Natrina Gandana
 JPI Intern
Despite their differences, Sen. Cory Booker (D – NJ) and Sen. Rand Paul (R – KY) joined forces to discuss criminal justice reform, highlighting the REDEEM (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment) Act at Politico's Playbook Cocktails Event last week.  As the odd duo's first ever joint appearance, both senators were able to bounce fluidly between one another appearing as respected colleagues and friends. 

Although the cooperation was rare (Booker noted he could "write a dissertation of their disagreements"), the two were able to come to an understanding with the REDEEM Act, which calls for a comprehensive reform measure that would challenge the "cycle of poverty and incarceration," stated Paul. The REDEEM Act is focused on providing pathways to employment for people charged with non-violent offenses upon return to their community after incarceration. According to Booker’s office, there are five main provisions of the REDEEM Act:

  • To create a federal sealing pathway for adults formerly incarcerated on non-violent charges.
    • Allow those who have committed non-violent crimes to petition for sealing of their criminal records, making it easier to get a job and reintegrate into society.
  • To automatically seal, and, in some cases, expunge juvenile records.
    • A child who commits a nonviolent crime before turning 15 will receive automatic expungement.  Minors who commit a nonviolent crime after turning 15 will receive automatic sealing of records.
  • To restrict use of juvenile solitary confinement
    • End the practice of isolation except in the most extreme circumstances, only acceptable in cases in which behavior poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm to the juvenile or others at any facility.
  • To create incentives for states to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old.
    • Offers preference to Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant applications for those counties that have set 18 or older as the age of original jurisdiction.
  • To lift the lifetime ban on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
    • Restores access to benefits for those who have served their time for drug use, possession, or distribution crimes.

A criminal record currently acts as a constant shadow of someone formerly incarcerated; these collateral consequences affect nearly every aspect of an individual’s life.  From employment, disenfranchisement, housing, parental rights and more; the ability to seal nonviolent offenders’ records would give those a second chance at the American Dream.  With 65 million Americans with a criminal record and recidivism rates at upwards of 70 percent, it is evident that the current state of rehabilitation is not succeeding.  If the bill passes, recidivism rates are possibly lowered which would, in turn, "save the taxpayer millions of dollars that can be used on education infrastructure," said Paul. Similar to the suggestions made by the Youth Advocates Program’s “Safely Home” report, which stresses the importance of community based alternatives to incarceration, the REDEEM Act represents a smarter use of taxpayer funds that would allow a focus on rehabilitation for youth and prevent them from committing future crimes.

Given the urgency of prison overcrowding, Booker and Paul couldn’t have approached the bill at a more essential time. We have all heard the statistics: the United States incarcerates 5 percent of the world’s imprisoned people, but is home only to 5 percent of the world’s population. The “war on drugs” increased federal incarcerations by 790 percent since 1980. One in every three black men will be under some form of the criminal justice system in his lifetime, one in six for Latino men, and one in 17 for white men. And currently, Booker noted, “more people are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses than all the people that were incarcerated in 1970.”

The necessity for reform is clear and both Booker and Paul have made criminal justice a focal point in their agendas. Most recently, Paul introduced legislation that would restore voting rights for those who have committed nonviolent offenses in federal elections and is currently working to change minimum mandatory drug-sentencing laws. Over the past year, several proposals have demonstrated that criminal justice reform is no longer a single party issue, but a problem that requires bipartisan compromise.  One example of bipartisan agreement is Sens. Dick Durbin (D – Ill.) and Mike Lee’s (R – UT) Smarter Sentencing Act, which aims to reduce excessive sentencing for those convicted of drug related crime. Another bipartisan proposal is the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, a compromise negotiated by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and John Cornyn (R-TX), which addresses overcrowding in federal prisons. Furthermore, although Attorney General Eric Holder’s Smart on Crime initiatives are the domain of the federal government, bipartisan momentum was instrumental in creating the initiatives. These proposals show that the issue of mass incarceration has risen to a level of significance that both Republicans and Democrats must address.

The playful banter between the two senators delved into conversations about social media, Booker’s love for show tunes, and sporadic debates about immigration; however the discussion always trailed back to the importance of criminal justice reform. The bipartisan legislation between two high-profile senators will hopefully reflect the possibility for more compromise in Congress. The REDEEM Act is a great step towards addressing our broken criminal justice system, however without the momentum from both parties to undo the effects of the failed “war on drugs;” the system will continue to drain money, resources, and most sadly, the future prospects more than a generation of mostly young people across the country.

Natrina Gandana is a Communications Intern. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in Political Science.

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