Criminal Justice

A personal mission; prison reform vs criminal justice reform

My Mission

Many years ago, when my (now deceased) son was incarcerated, I knew next to nothing about criminal justice policies, rates of incarceration, or racial disparities in sentencing.

I paid little heed to his complaints about overly punitive judges, ineffective lawyers, or prison conditions. In actuality, I believed he was just venting his frustrations.

With a better understanding of the political and social factors that have led to mass incarceration, I might have been more proactive, perhaps even joining an organization that tackled criminal justice issues.

Doing so, could have helped me cope with my anxiety and worry.

Hence, in 2016, I created a podcast, One Mother’s Voice: In the Name of Justice to provide for mothers with sons in prison “… accurate information about U.S. criminal justice policies and their effects on families and communities, and to promote activism as an antidote to hopelessness and helplessness.” (OMV is on hiatus until January 2019)

The podcast featured topics from community bail funds to health care in prisons as well as my commentary on criminal justice issues and news.

My goal for the revamped OMV is to give mothers a platform to share their experiences with the criminal justice system, their concerns, and their strategies for coping with emotional pain.

If you have a story to share, contact Wista Jeanne Johnson at

The (Trump-approved) First Step Act debate

2016 was an encouraging year for federal sentencing reform. There was bipartisan support in Congress for changing minimum mandatory sentence laws for low-level drug offenses. (Good news.)

In May 2018, the First Step Act (FSA), a prison reform bill, passed the House in May 2018. Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior advisor to President Trump, has been the major proponent of the bill.

(Some believe that Kusher’s advocacy was prompted by the fact that his father, Charles Kushner, spent two years in federal prison for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering.)

Critics of FSA say that the bill is “back-end” reform that affects those already incarcerated rather than “front end” reform that seeks to affect policies that keep people out of prison through preventative measures. Its provisions include:

  • encouraging inmates to participate in vocational and rehabilitative programs
  • authorize more funding for these programs
  • increasing “good time credits”
  • using algorithms to determine inmate eligibility for these credits.

However, Vox reports “…algorithms can perpetuate racial and class discrimination; for instance, an algorithm that excludes someone from earning credits due to previous criminal history may overlook that black and poor people are more likely to be incarcerated for crimes even when they’re not more likely to actually commit those crimes.”

FSA faces opposition from Republicans (Sen. Tom Cotton–AK) and Democrats, including Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA).

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Senator Cotton said, “This naive policy ignores the reality of recidivism. Five out of six prisoners end up rearrested within nine years, according to a recent Justice Department study…(m)ost criminals will commit more crimes after being released from prison, even with improved rehabilitation programs.

The last thing Congress should do is shorten their sentences or allow them to “serve time” in home confinement.” (Of course, he makes no mention of the causes for recidivism.)

According to a Marshall Project article, “Opponents, mostly on the left, say any criminal justice reform bill should also reduce mandatory minimum sentences or give judges more discretion to make the punishment fit the crime. A bipartisan Senate bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, is also making its way through Congress. It includes “back end” reform—services for prisoners—and “front end” reform—reducing sentence time. Its supporters believe that the House bill is stealing support and momentum from the more comprehensive bill.”

FSA only affects federal prisoners.

Let’s hope that, despite its limitations, it proves beneficial for incarcerated persons who seldom get second chances.




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