‘Generation of Al Capones’: Prison reform attracts strange bedfellows

‘Generation of Al Capones’: Prison reform attracts strange bedfellows
Senators Kamala Harris (D-California) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) are reaching across the aisle in a bid to support prison reform. They are co-sponsoring a bill to reform bail conditions which serves as an example of a reform idea that has bipartisan appeal.

In a New York Times op-ed on Thursday, the two senators set out their case by recalling the horrifying saga of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old New Yorker who was arrested on charges of stealing a backpack in 2010.

The family was unable to post $3,000 in bail, and Browder was sent to jail on Rikers Island to wait for his day in court. He ended up staying there for three years before charges were dropped and he was released.

“Haunted by his experience, Mr. Browder hanged himself in 2015,” wrote Harris and Paul. The pair notes that as many as 450,000 Americans are in jail today awaiting trial because they could not afford to pay jail.

“Whether someone stays in jail or not is far too often determined by wealth or social connections, even though just a few days behind bars can cost people their job, home, custody of their children — or their life,” wrote Harris and Paul.

Black and Latino defendants are more likely to be detained before trial and less likely to be able to post bail compared to white defendants, they noted.

The senators pointed out that nine out of ten defendants who are detained cannot afford to post bail, which can exceed $20,000 for minor crimes like stealing $105 worth of clothing.

“As criminal justice groups work to change sentencing and mandatory minimum laws, we must also reform a bail system that is discriminatory and wasteful,” they wrote.

Their bill, the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, would provide three-year, $10 million grants through the Department of Justice for states to create their own policies for bail reform.

Currently, Colorado and West Virginia send the defendant a telephone reminder not to miss the court date and end up detained.

Kentucky and New Jersey create personalized risk assessments for defendants to determine whether there is a flight risk or a threat to the public that would necessitate a suspect be held without bail.

In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives, a collective of more than 50 groups, called for activists to target federal and state legislatures and urge them to end money bail practices.

Harris and Paul’s bill, which is Harris’ first signature legislation, goes even further. It would establish an additional $5 million for a National Pretrial Reporting Program, which would require the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics to collect data on how states and municipal courts process defendants.

While prison reform has long been considered a liberal or Democratic goal, conservative criminal justice reformers have been nodding towards rehabilitation and non-prison sentences for drug crimes as early as 2008.

An April 2016 resolution, adopted by the Republican National Committee, argues that despite the massive growth in incarceration, many who are released from prison commit new crimes, leading to the conclusion that prison might not be the best investment for public safety.

“We have created, with drug prohibition, a multi-billion dollar underground economy, and a generation of Al Capones,” Republican delegate Giovanni Cicione, an attorney from Rhode Island told the Marshall Project.

It was decided that prisons should do more than punish. Rather, “they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization…[by] encouraging States to offer opportunities for literacy and vocational education to prepare prisoners for release to the community.”

Right-leaning American billionaires Charles and David Koch became allies with then-President Barack Obama in advocating for criminal justice reform.

"It’s morally, constitutionally and fiscally the right thing to do to reform our criminal justice system," Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, told Democracy Now at the time.

Along with more liberal philanthropic groups like the MacArthur Foundation, the billionaire brothers are core supporters of the Coalition for Public Safety.

According to its website, the group works "across the political spectrum to pursue a comprehensive set of federal, state, and local criminal justice reforms to reduce our jail and prison populations and associated costs; end the systemic problems of over-criminalization and over-incarceration – particularly of low-income communities and communities of color; ensure swift and fair outcomes for both the accused and the victim; and make communities safe by reducing recidivism and breaking down barriers faced by those returning home after detention or incarceration."

In describing the Koch brothers' interest in the issue of reform, Holden told Democracy Now that the Kochs were "classical liberals who believe in expansive individual liberties in the Bill of Rights and limited government," and "if your goals are to honor the Bill of Rights and to remove obstacles to opportunity, especially for the poor and the disadvantaged, you have to be in the criminal justice arena."

A close advisor to Charles Koch, Holden said the current system has to be addressed "across the board" to help ensure prisoners have a fair shot at improving their lives once they have served their time.