By Dale Glading
I walked into prison for the first time on June 6, 1987. Over the past 33 years, I have retraced those steps almost 5,000 times, ministering in more than 400 different correctional institutions across North America and Africa.
That three-decade prison ministry journey has taken me everywhere from minimum-security juvenile facilities to maximum-security federal penitentiaries… from Sing Sing – America’s oldest continually occupied prison, portions of which date to 1825 – to the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, built in 1871. It has also included dozens of correctional institutions in Canada and 10 more in Kenya, such as the Naivasha Main Prison, one of only two maximum-security facilities on the African continent.
In Kenya, if you are a female inmate with a child under the age of four, you and your child are incarcerated together. And so, if you are going to minister in a women’s prison in Kakamega, you had better bring diapers, powdered milk, sanitary napkins, and candy with you. Because in Kenya, if your friends and relatives don’t bring you food in prison, you (and your child) don’t eat very well. Neither do you bathe regularly if they don’t bring you soap… and you can forget about having hot water.
I share my extensive prison ministry background for two purposes. First, to glorify God and second, to emphasize that – when it comes to the criminal justice system – I know what I am talking about. Which brings me to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person (First Step) Act of 2018.
The 1994 Crime Bill was sponsored in the House by Rep. Jack Brooks (D-TX) and in the Senate by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE). The largest crime bill in U.S. history, it consisted of 356 pages that provided for 100,000 new police officers and more than $15 billion in federal funding for prisons and prevention programs. President Bill Clinton signed it into law on September 13, 1994.
Although well-intentioned, the 1994 Crime Bill had some disastrous consequences. By tying federal funding to increased prison construction, the VCCLEA resulted in the largest increases in federal and state inmate populations – often for nonviolent drug-related offenses – in American history according to the Justice Policy Institute. In fact, based on figures provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, America’s jail and prison population soared from roughly 1.5 million in the mid-90’s to an estimated 2.3 million just 10 years later.
Another controversial aspect of the VCCLEA was the “three strikes” provision that mandated a life sentence for someone with at least one violent felony among his or her three criminal convictions. VCCLEA also required that inmates complete at least 85% of their sentence in order for states to receive additional federal funding.
My purpose here is not to argue the merits of the various aspects of the 1994 Crime Bill, although I think it is safe to say that the application of mandatory minimums and other questionable policies has largely backfired. I simply want to point out one undeniable fact: if you believe that mass incarceration is wrong and that minorities are over-represented in America’s jails and prisons, a large part of the blame rests at the feet of Joe Biden. No amount of Democrat spin can change that fact.
Conversely, the First Step Act of 2018 has sought to reduce prison populations and recidivism rates while lowering – and in some case eliminating – mandatory minimums. It also contained multiple humanitarian measures such as prohibiting the use of restraints on prisoners during pregnancy, labor and postpartum recovery, subject to limited exceptions.
According to the Washington Post and The Sentencing Project, “within the first year of enactment, more than 3,000 federal prisoners were released based on changes to the good-time credits calculation formula under the First Step Act, and more than 2,000 inmates benefited from sentence reductions from the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Additionally, nearly 350 people were approved for elderly home confinement and more than 100 received compassionate release sentence reductions.”
Whereas the First Step Act passed with bi-partisan support, its original sponsor was Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) and one of its most vocal champions was President Donald Trump, who signed it into law on December 21, 2018.
Hopefully, this short history of the Biden-sponsored 1994 Crime Bill and the Trump-endorsed First Step Act will set the record straight. When it comes to criminal justice reform, Joe Biden was heavy-handed then and is AWOL now. Meanwhile, President Trump has sought and achieved a proper balance between correction and compassion.
Voters concerned about true criminal justice should cast their ballots accordingly.
Dale Glading is an ordained minister and former N.J. Republican candidate for Congress.