Thursday, September 17, 2015

Congress Set to Introduce Groundbreaking Criminal Justice Reform Bills

House and Senate leaders from both parties are this month to introduce a major criminal justice reform bill—just as independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont prepares to introduce his own bill. The bipartisan is expected to focus on reducing draconian mandatory minimum sentences and strengthening re-entry programs for prisoners returning to the community. Sanders’s bill would abolish privately-run jails and prisons, revive the federal parole program, and end the “bed quota” in immigration detention.

The National Center for Transgender Equality lauds the Sanders bill with Executive Director Mara Keisling stating: “Though it would likely not see passage in this Congress, this bill represents a principled stand against America’s crumbling criminal justice system. By stopping the practice of profiting off of prisoners, this bill helps restore respect and dignity to all people behind bars.”

Within two years, Sanders’s would end all contracts for privately run local, state and federal prisons and immigration detention centers, eliminate the current rule requiring that a mandatory minimum number of immigrants be detained at all times, and require Immigration and Customs Enforcement to improve monitoring of detention facilities. The legislation will also end private companies’ overcharging of prisoners for services while incarcerated, increasing oversight, and reinstating the federal parole system.

Jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers are inherently unsafe places for transgender people. Their placement in these facilities make them targets of sexual assault. And often, transgender people are forced into isolation simply because of who they are. Because of bias in policing and the unfair targeting of sex workers, transgender people of color are more likely than most to interact with the criminal justice system.

“Reforming these systems for transgender people means resolving problems in policing that disproportionately traps transgender people in jails, prisons, and immigration detention, while also improving the conditions in these facilities,” said Keisling.”

Meanwhile Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, Minority Whip Dick Durbin, and Utah Senator Mike Lee are said to be close to introducing a bipartisan bill focused on federal sentencing reform and reentry.

Throughout the summer the House Judiciary Committee has also been working on a bipartisan criminal justice reform initiative. Representatives Bob Goodlatte and John Conyers are expected to introduce a criminal justice reform bill in the House this month. The House Judiciary Committee, which reviews all new federal criminal laws, began the initiative in June with a listening session where they heard from a number of Members of Congress on criminal justice reform issues. The resulting bill is said to focus on issues including over-criminalization, sentencing reform, prison and reentry reform, protecting citizens through improved criminal procedures and policing strategies, and civil asset forfeiture reform. A number of other proposals are being discussed on Capitol Hill, including the bipartisan Fair Chance Act introduced last week by Reps. Elijah Cummings and Darrell Issa and Sens. Cory Booker and Ron Jonson, which would limit questions about criminal records in federal hiring to only being asked after a conditional job offer is made. Advocates have called on President Obama to sign an executive order adopting this “Ban the Box” policy, so called for the “box” on job applications asking about criminal record.

NCTE and other advocates continue to work to create new tools for advocacy focused on protecting transgender and gender non-conforming people at every level of the criminal justice system, including interactions with local, state and federal law enforcement officials and with the public at-large.

Learn more with our resource, “Standing with LGBT Prisoners: An Advocate’s Guide to Ending Abuse and Combating Imprisonment” here.

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