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AFL-CIO Now

It's Time to Reform Sentencing Law in the U.S.

Photo courtesy powell on Flickr

I am part of a community where a lot of my peers aren’t working. Many of them want to but can’t because they were formerly incarcerated. In fact, studies show a formerly incarcerated white male has a better chance of being hired than an African American male without a criminal record. But that is frequently overlooked, and it often feels like no one even cares.

Fortunately, there’s a bill—the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015—moving through the Senate right now that will begin to change policies around how judges issue sentences and the programs and resources available to inmates to help facilitate justice and equality in the criminal justice system. This bill will create programs to assist formerly incarcerated persons after they are released. It also gives judges more power to order sentences that fit the crime instead of mandatory sentences that contribute to overcrowded prisons and generations of youth lost to a broken criminal justice system.

The AFL-CIO is joining with its allies—in labor and beyond—to end mass incarceration in the United States. Decades of evidence and experience tell us that mass incarceration and current sentencing laws have done more harm than good.

Mandatory minimums have been used against defendants of color at a disproportionately higher rate—especially those convicted of federal crimes due to drug-related offenses. This hurts our communities and families because it takes away funding from needed resources like schools and community centers and puts up yet another barrier to the job market for formerly incarcerated people. These minimums also create overcrowding in our prisons—which often puts the people who work as corrections officers in an unsafe work environment.

Re-entry and prerelease programs also have failed to address the real systemic issues in low-income and marginalized communities. And current laws don’t support a gradual, full restoration of the right to vote or even to serve on a jury.

That’s where the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 comes in. It won’t solve all of these problems overnight, but it is a huge step toward beginning to reform our broken criminal justice system. It would implement programs and policies to assist formerly incarcerated persons for life after release to make the transition easier and lower the chances of recidivism. This bill is a good first step that will help lay the foundation for our society to also addresses some of these issues.

America is supposed to be a democratic nation of second chances. But our democracy can only run at full throttle when all of us call out injustice for what it is and fight to make it right. We shouldn’t be a society that spends billions on locking people up instead of focusing on resources to build successful communities and a greater workforce.

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