WASHINGTON — At 20 years old, Sandy Ramirez — a financially struggling, drug-addicted college student from the Bronx, who had fallen away from living his Catholic faith — decided he would commit a robbery.

It seemed at the time an easy way to pay for a $500 traffic fine that took away his driver’s license. Ramirez said he had no plans to harm anyone, but as he recalls, that tragic day, as he tried stepping over his prone victims while making his way to the door, his finger bumped the trigger of the shotgun.

The muzzle roared. One person was killed. Another person was gravely wounded. And Ramirez would receive a sentence of 22 years to life.

Thirty-six years and 15 days later, Ramirez emerged from Otisville correctional facility a different man, living a different life, always mindful of the one he took. Ramirez knew he needed to change 14 years in, when he learned his mother had become gravely sick with a heart condition and diabetes. Over the next 22 years, he received help for his addiction, rediscovered his Catholic faith, achieved educational certificates, obtained outside work privileges and prepared to rejoin society.

“When I stepped out — it was like I belonged,” he said.

Reforming the federal prison system and helping prisoners like Ramirez reintegrate into society is on the agenda of the Trump administration and Congress this year. The United States has more people behind bars than any other country in the world and accounts for 25% of the world’s incarcerated population.

In a rare act of bipartisan consensus, the House passed the First Step Act by a 360-59 vote, although its passage in the Senate is doubtful because the bill does not include sentencing reform.

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — whose father Charles Kushner spent time in federal prison over illegal campaign contributions — is shepherding the legislation through Congress. It aims to orient federal prison toward restoring prisoners to society and improving conditions and incentives for incarcerated persons.

 

The Bill’s Provisions
The First Step Act would increase funding for educational and job-training programs by $50 million each year for five years and incentivize participation, with the ability to earn up to 54 days toward an early release from prison.

It also bans shackling pregnant women and mothers who have just given birth and requires that feminine hygiene products be provided free of charge. It also would require prisoners to be placed within 500 miles of their family members and expand conditions of compassionate release, among other reforms.

The bill effects a small portion of the 2.3 million people in the U.S. behind bars, since just 225,000 people are housed in federal prisons and jails. But the bill’s discussion could reinforce the efforts made at state and local levels to reform the system so that prisoners can successfully re-enter society, instead of returning to prison within a few years.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), approximately 650,000 persons leave prison to re-enter society each year. But 68% end up back in prison within three years, a trajectory the DOJ explained is largely influenced by the temptations that come from having “no job, no money and no place to live.”

Ramirez fortunately could live with his aged father, and the educational opportunities he took in prison helped give him stability. So did his Catholic formation in prison, as did the Jesuit-run Thrive for Justice community he belongs to outside of prison. The community provides social and spiritual support to prisoners on the outside, and Ramirez tries to encourage others on their journey.

But he said incarcerated persons would have a better time re-integrating into society if prisons could make restoring that person to society their explicit goal.

“They should start that transformation and transition process from Day One, if possible,” he said.

 

Political Consensus and Division

A majority of Americans from across the political spectrum agree the U.S. criminal-justice system needs to be overhauled. A January poll of 800 registered voters conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a firm that works mainly with Republican and right-leaning campaigns and causes, found 85% believed prison’s main goal should be rehabilitating prisoners, and 87% agreed with replacing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders with more judicial discretion.

Prison reform and sentencing reform are considered two wings of an overhaul to the criminal-justice system. Sentencing reform is the “front end,” determining who should really be in prison and how long they should stay there. Prison reform is the “back end,” aimed at programming to prepare prisoners to successfully re-enter and reintegrate into society.

While the agreement for reforming the criminal-justice system is bipartisan, so are the divisions. The First Step Act faces stiff resistance as a stand-alone bill in the U.S. Senate, where many members are insisting on the inclusion of sentencing reform.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., believe their bipartisan bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, is a proven way to reduce the massive prison population because it includes both sentencing and prison reform.

“States that have reformed their sentencing regimes and provided evidence-based programming aimed at reducing recidivism have closed prisons, saved money and reduced crime,” Sen. Grassley said May 22 in remarks to the Friends Committee on National Legislation. He added a prison-reform bill without sentencing reform would have no chance of passing the Senate.

Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the Brennan Center Justice Program at the New York University School of Law, told the Register the Brennan Center opposes the First Step Act as a stand-alone bill. Grawert said he and his colleagues are concerned the bill would reduce the sense of urgency for more meaningful criminal-justice reform.

“If you want to tackle the problem of incarceration, you need to evaluate why that person is there in the first place,” he said.

Grawert said many police officers, sheriffs and other members of law enforcement want sentencing reform, as they often deal with nonviolent offenders whom they would rather see diverted to a drug rehabilitation center, rather than sent to prison with violent criminals.

He pointed to a 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts study that found that mass incarceration does not reduce crime. Between 2008 and 2013, most states that reduced imprisonment rates saw declines in crime, as well.

Grawert said a “broad coalition” of Republicans and Democrats want comprehensive prison reform — and their hope is that the First Step Act will become part of more robust, compromise legislation. But one question is whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will allow such a compromise, and there is doubt President Trump would sign such a bill.

 

‘Very Good Return’

The First Step Act “would have to be the first of many steps” to achieve substantial reductions of the U.S. federal prison population, according to Grant Duwe, an American Enterprise Institute scholar with 15 years of experience working for the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Duwe noted the bill would add $50 million every year to existing programs for incarcerated persons. But in order to be effective, he said, those programs need to be more widely available in the federal prison system. Prisons need a diversity of programs, such as job training for gainful employment, cognitive behavioral therapy or post-secondary education, to address the underlying factors that put people behind bars in the first place or could lead to them reoffend.

These programs can save taxpayers time and money and reduce the risks to public safety officers, as fewer people commit new crimes, explained Duwe. He pointed to a 2013 RAND study that found that every $1 invested in prison education saves $4-$5 in the cost of housing prisoners. Prisoners who take some education courses were also 43% less likely to reoffend and end up back behind bars.

“We get a very good return on our investment in these programs,” he said.

The challenge, Duwe explained, is many in the public look at prison education as a reward for bad behavior, instead of as a proven method of reducing crime and the burden to the taxpayer. The 1994 federal crime bill removed federal student loans for prisoners, but the U.S. Department of Education has been experimenting with the “Second-Chance Pell Pilot Program” as an alternative way for incarcerated persons to receive higher education, so they can build new lives with jobs that can support their families.

 

Msgr. Swetland’s Perspective

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, has seen firsthand the difference a college education makes in a prisoner’s life. The Catholic college has maintained a branch campus at the Lansing Correctional Facility, providing college courses to 402 incarcerated persons and handing out 20 associate degrees.

Msgr. Swetland said just 2% of Donnelly’s incarcerated students returned to prison — an astonishingly low figure compared to the national average. Without federal student aid to prisoners, Donnelly's ability to change more lives is limited by resources, as the Catholic college must subsidize their education solely through private donations.

But the effects of this form of “restorative justice” can be intergenerational: Msgr. Swetland said one former prisoner who earned his associate degree at the state prison campus pursued a bachelor’s degree after his incarceration. His example inspired his son — and even his father — to enroll in courses at Donnelly.

The priest, who is also a theologian with a background as a U.S. Navy officer, told the Register that the Church’s commitment to prisoners comes both as a response to Christ’s own command, but also out of its own teaching that all human life has inherent dignity and value. He added the issue of “mass incarceration” speaks volumes about how the U.S. values human life, quoting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s maxim: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

With respect to the First Step Act’s limitations, Msgr. Swetland said, “I’ll take an incremental step as long as we’re moving in the right direction.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.