PHOENIX, AZ – America’s Future Foundation, an organization big on limited government and free markets, recently held a discussion on criminal justice reform.
The event, hosted by Austin Jack from AFF, invited an assortment of guests to discuss areas of opportunity with regard to how the country could address CJR from a humane, fiscally responsible, and justifiable perspective.
— America's Future Fdn (@AFF) March 20, 2020
Of those invited were Matthew Charles, one of the first recipients of the First Step Act and a friend of President Trump, Carlos Alfaro from Arizona Talks, and myself, Gregory Hoyt from Law Enforcement Today.
During the digital, fireside chat, many areas were touched regarding how criminal justice reform can be approached so as to balance those being released from prison being able to have an opportunity to reintegrate into society, as well as what individuals can do to better enable this.
It’s understandable that when people hear of CJR, they think of lenient prison sentences, or mass decriminalization.
However, the discussion that took place on March 19th in Phoenix, Arizona introduced perspectives of all sides of the political spectrum.
It served as an amazing dialogue devoid of bickering and honed in on finding common ground.
Austin Jack brought to the table thought provoking inquiries regarding aspects of how can we address the before, during, and post-prison process to better society in a myriad of fashions.
The host dove right into asking about what the state of Arizona is currently doing with regard to CJR. Alfaro noted the following:
“Well, in the last couple of years, we’ve seen a big interest in criminal justice reform. Coming from the First Step Act and other federal pushes for reform. And that’s good, because at the state level, that is where most inmates are housed in America; and reform needs to happen at the state level.”
For those unaware, the First Step Act was a federal move to create a form of post-conviction relief for those doing time for non-violent offenses. Matthew Charles is a perfect example of over-sentencing, after he was sentenced to 35 years in prison for having under 8 ounces of crack-cocaine and an illegal firearm in his possession.
After having served 21 years and seven months in prison, without a single disciplinary infraction while incarcerated, he was released under the First Step Act.
While many people may think of a “do the crime, do the time” model, an Army veteran sentenced to half a lifetime in prison for the mistake of selling a minuscule amount of drugs is an extremely harsh penalty.
We’ve seen people serve far less time for acts far worse, which is what spawned this conversation between diverse individuals.
Had Matthew Charles been forced to serve the “truth in sentencing” model of his time, he wouldn’t have gotten out until nearly 30 years in prison. Charles noted the reality of “truth in sentencing”:
“You had to serve 85% of your sentence, whether you became rehabilitated yourself during the course of your incarceration or not; and regardless of what programs you entered to better yourself.”
As many readers may know, I personally spent nearly five years in prison in Arizona. The host had asked what are some of the biggest obstacles associated with CJR and what role should the government play in that process.
I responded on the obstacles associated with CJR first:
“Well you know, one of the biggest things you’ve got to take a look at with regard to criminal justice reform is ‘what is crime?’ You have to wonder, are we honing in on instances of people suffering tangible harm? Or are we incarcerating people for crimes associated with civility?”
I had also provided examples of crimes of civility, such as an inability to pay court fines or the IRS; or simply being in possession of low-level narcotics of a consumable nature.
When it came to what role the government should play in the CJR, I conveyed the following:
“They really should play the part of putting their ear to the ground; and trying to get an understanding of what the greater populace wants – instead of them congregating together and trying to figure out what the general public wants. Listen to the public; what do you think should be illegal with regard harming people? Physically, financially – however that harm is.”
It’s an important concept to consider. Are we over criminalizing acts that don’t harm or create a domino effect of harm against people?
When the discussion pivoted to how CJR can be implemented to post-release endeavors, Charles noted the following hurdles one faces when being released from prison:
“Once [someone is] released, there has to be avenue’s for [someone] to get a living wage – employment – and housing. Because there are still barriers from the beginning of going in and after you finish your sentence.”
Jack then redirected to me, wanting to take a deeper dive into what it’s like once someone leaves prison and reenters the “real world.”
The host wanted insight into what the path of assimilating back into society is like once someone has completed their time in prison.
I pointed out the two major contributing factors that impact societal reintegration, housing and employment, just as Charles noted earlier:
“There are two major hurdles, and [Charles] touched on them perfectly. It’s getting that first job and finding housing. More often than not, you’ve got approximately a week – week and a half’s time – to land that job.”
From there I explained how one has to inform every employer that they’re a felon, which can often lead to not getting the job.
In turn, that creates a conundrum.
If someone released from prison can’t get to work, then they’re left without a means to gain legal income. Once that transpires, it inadvertently can create more crime being committed by a felon – thus, a vicious cycle continues to repeat.
You can view the conversation below, and while I know that CJR may not be everyone’s top priority, it’s a topic worthy of looking into.
While not everyone in prison is as verbose, well-rounded, or as open-minded as myself, it doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of opportunity upon release or respite from harsh sentencing.
This experience was an amazing opportunity to converse with individuals who held common ground despite being across the political spectrum on many other issues.
This instance should serve as a reminder to actively engage with those who do not agree with every single one of your ideals so that commonality can be discovered.
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