FIRST STEP Act Represents Last Hope For Sick And Elderly In Prison

Rabbi Sholom Dovber Lipskar | Founder of the Aleph Institute

In another life, Bruce Harrison might have been a candidate for public office. He served with the Marines in Vietnam as a machine gunner, was shot twice and was awarded two Purple Hearts. But when he returned home, he found a country cold to his service. Having nowhere else to turn, he joined a motorcycle group that was targeted by a government sting operation. Federal agents approached members of the group, including Harrison, and offered them $1,000 to run shipments of cocaine and marijuana. Harrison needed the money, so he agreed. He was caught, convicted, and even though the entire operation was set up by the government, Harrison received a 50-year sentence.

Twenty-three years later, Bruce Harrison is still behind bars. In his mid-60’s, he can barely walk and must wear special medical boots to get around. He’s a grandfather now, and his last hope of leaving prison to see his grandchildren was a clemency petition to the President of the United States that was denied.

Harrison’s story is all too common. Thanks in part to brutally harsh mandatory minimum sentences put into place during the “War on Drugs,” the number of people 55 or older in state and federal prisons exploded by 280 percent from 1999-2016, compared to just 3 percent growth in the number of younger adults, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Elderly prisoners are also by far the most expensive. The Justice Department’s inspector general found that the facilities with the highest percentages of aging inmates spent five times more per inmate than other facilities. Ironically, these individuals are the least likely to recommit crime. The recidivism rate for people 65 and older is only about 13 percent, compared to nearly 68 percent for people under the age of 21.

We are spending the most money incarcerating elderly and sick people, who pose the least risk to public safety.

Thankfully, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation that takes meaningful steps to correct these absurdities in our broken justice system. The House Judiciary Committee recently approved the FIRST STEP Act in a rare bipartisan vote. The bill would expand the amount of time a person can decrease his or her sentence for good behavior, provide a pathway to home confinement for those who participate in recidivism-reduction programming and prohibit the inhumane practice of shackling pregnant women. The bill would also expand an existing pilot program to allow sick and elderly people to be removed from prison and finish their sentences at home with their families and loved ones. Referred to as “compassionate release,” this program also just represents common sense.

By allowing elderly and sick people to return home and spend their final days with their families, precious taxpayer dollars can be focused on higher-risk prisoners, 95 percent of whom will be getting out someday. Ensuring these individuals have greater access to the volume and intensity of recidivism-reduction programming not only helps these individuals turn their lives around, it also makes our communities safer when they can become productive members of society, care for their families and live crime-free lives.

Credit is due to the bill’s sponsors, Reps. Doug Collins (R., Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D., N.Y.), who have little in common politically, but share a vision for, and commitment to, justice. This bill’s concept fits completely within the moral ethical standards delineated by biblical narrative and the Torah/Jewish system based on universal laws of goodness, kindness, ethics, morality and redemption. It is Almighty God Who gives each person meaning and purpose in life, which is unfortunately extremely limited and stymied by prison.

For all these reasons, supporters of the bill should ensure the elderly and compassionate release provisions are expanded further before the bill moves to the House floor. First, the program should be made permanent. Second, language in the bill should be updated so that denials of transfers of elderly and sick inmates should only be made when clear and convincing evidence shows the individual is still a threat to public safety. Finally, the bill should allow elderly individuals to count their earned time credits when calculating the two-thirds sentence requirement to transfer to home confinement.

Given the broad bipartisan support for these policies and the number of states – both red and blue – that have successfully implemented smart justice reforms, this legislation should sail to the president’s desk. But partisan politics threatens to derail this progress—a huge risk to take when we can pass this bill now and positively impact the lives of people like Bruce Harrison. The FIRST STEP Act may be the last chance this decorated war veteran has to reunite with his family and grandchildren. So I urge government officials and agencies to take this matter very seriously and pass this bill into law as soon as possible as it will not only save lives but better society. There are tragic human stories behind the debate, and if elected officials simply do what’s right for people, the politics will take care of itself.

Rabbi Sholom Dovber Lipskar is the founder of the Aleph Institute, a national Jewish education and humanitarian organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for the incarcerated and the military and their families. He has been an adjunct professor of religious studies at Florida International University. 


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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