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Nonviolent Offender Relief Act introduced in House

The Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act of 2003, HR 3575, was introduced in the House of Representatives on November 21. Relief in the form of early release eligibility would come to prisoners at least 45 years of age who have served half their sentence, with no history of violence, or violations of institutional disciplinary regulations. (You will find the full bill text here.)

The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee where members will argue its merits, listen to varied testimony from pro and con voices, and undoubtedly modify its language. If HR 3575 becomes law as it's now written, its effects would be significant.

Had a parole bill been introduced before, or simultaneously, it would have made comment easier for anyone attempting it formally. Many November Coalition members don't expect HR 3575 to stand alone, or for very long. Thus, at this time of congressional interest, we encourage support for any bill offering relief to the imprisoned, assistance to former prisoners, and sentencing relief for 'future drug offenders.' There are bills in Congress in each broad category.

That said, our members should appreciate how relentless pressure over the years has pushed proposed bills for early release into Congressional hearing rooms in 2003-4. This progress is evidence of a new era of popular democracy.

Please notice in the remarks made by Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) during discussions of HR 1829 (see article here) how your anguished voices are heard and reflected. On behalf of non-violent prisoners, she argues for early release. Then comes the stand-alone HR 3575, sponsored by the same courageous woman.

Simply put, good ideas and good people have to do that -- stand alone, for awhile. Past struggles involving underdogs have lone crusaders and singular sentiments that 'stand alone' at first. Most of the people who have commented to us about HR 3575 support the simplicity and practicality of a mathematical formula to relieve prison overcrowding by lowering the level of release-eligibility from 85% to 50%. Likewise, most who commented thus far are eager to have competing, comprehensive parole bills and alternative good time eligibility programs presented in Congress that will benefit younger prisoners and nonviolent drug lifers, too.

HR 3575, coupled with a follow-up parole bill soon would relieve psychological barriers to reviving parole. Hesitant legislators, fearing voters may think they're 'soft on crime,' might be persuaded to support release of prisoners who are less likely to re-offend.

Numerous studies in criminology suggest (in similar language) that people who commit crimes when younger usually lose interest in lawbreaking by middle age. Hence, HR 3575 relies on the age of 45 to base its claim for the safe release of prisoners that age and older. But, fewer people affected also may mean less grassroots' support for it likewise. Supporters of sentencing reform like the late Paul Simon, former Illinois senator and presidential candidate, urged groups like ours to support easy-to-understand incremental reforms for Congressional debate. We think he meant a bill that is not unlike HR 3575.

We are, unfortunately, forced to speculate and brainstorm together based on what we do know. It seems more likely that prisoners will be released by category, and after some tight hurdles. Most of us have concluded that it will take sustained public scrutiny to replace drug war injustice with new systems of rehabilitation and release.

Politically involved volunteers can turn these paper-proposals into reality. HR 3575 deserves support for its promise to relieve prison overcrowding by a simple formula, and so do requests for complex, rehabilitative release plans to come that will benefit younger prisoners and nonviolent drug lifers, too.

We hope members will forward to our office copies of letters you write to leaders, including responses received.

The November Coalition, true to our grassroots legacy, has published proposed legislation that are not formal bills. (See our new Parole section.) These 'citizen bills' are often compelling ideas that we feel leaders might learn from. They are on our website and have been authored by prisoners. We continue to collect signatures from the public on the Petition for Relief that asks, in broad language, for a return to parole and/or increased good time eligibility in the federal system. A copy of that Petition can be found here (PDF format).

The great experiment of mass policing and imprisonment for drugs appears to be gasping some last breaths, but there is still a gap between what should be, and what actually is, that gives a person that impression. When the gap gets wide, and wider yet - expect change. While more political leaders are prepared to ask for release, others are still asking for harsher sentencing. (See Eye On Congress) That is an unstable gap in leadership, and can signal a prairie fire of change.
Concerned after reading the simple text of HR 3575, one member asked, "Does this mean they'll make room for a bunch of 19 year olds that have been sentenced to 25 years?" A valid question to ask. Another was "how many people would be eligible for release?" That is a number that the Bureau of Prisons could be encouraged to expose.

Please communicate with your leaders in the House of Representatives, the House Judiciary Committee, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and ask your friends and family to do the same. Contact information can be found here. Tips on writing letters can be found in Stamp Out Ignorance with November Coalition's Letter Writing Guide, available here (PDF format).

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