The Corner

Rand Paul and Cory Booker Take a Step in the Right Direction on Criminal-Justice Reform

Senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker deserve a lot of credit for the REDEEM Act they’re putting forward in the Senate. The proposed law, which would encourage states to stop trying those under 18 years old in adult courts, make it easier for non-violent adult offenders to get their criminal records sealed, lift bans on providing some social assistance to low-level offenders, and limit solitary confinement for juveniles is, overall, a good piece of work full of modest common-sense reforms. That said, once the full legislative text is available — I still haven’t been able to read it — there are two provisions that members of Congress may want to look at more closely

First, what may be the most obviously sympathetic part of the bill — a limit on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles — might actually serve to continue the problematic practice of having legislative bodies micro-manage correctional facilities. For at least 30 years, Congress and legislatures around the country have passed laws that limit prisoners’ access to certain types of exercise equipment, describe what types of food can be served in prison, and even dictate what can be shown on TV. While inmates certainly do not have any entitlement to weights, good food, TV shows, or any other particular comfort, these practices have largely served to tie the hands of wardens. Prisoners have to be given some privileges if only so that officials can take them away if they misbehave. The same logic applies to putative tools such as solitary confinement: Prison administrators need a range of punishments so they can appropriately deal with their charges. This doesn’t mean legislatures should be totally hands off about the specifics of prison management. In this particular case, social-science research suggests that solitary confinement of juveniles probably should be banned or at least discouraged. Nonetheless, members of Congress should be careful about how specifically they try to manage prisons and should make sure that the final provision does as little as possible to set a bad precedent.

Second, the idea of encouraging states to allow lower-level offenders to seal their criminal records is a good one that deserves expansion. Indeed, it’s tempting to think of ways that a federally encouraged “sealing” process might be used as a stepping stone towards a full “spending” process for some lower-level offenses. Under the  “spending” process that exists in the United Kingdom, people who commit certain categories of minor offenses can have their offenses considered “spent” after a certain period of exemplary behavior. The process is, in some respects, less forgiving than most “sealing” in the United States in that it has reasonably broad exceptions for national security, homeland security, transportation, and child-care positions. Unlike what Paul and Booker are proposing, however, spending is automatic and requires no affirmative effort on the ex-offenders’ part.

Like any complicated proposal, there are probably other things in Paul and Booker’s plan that deserve a closer look. But, on the whole, it’s a good piece of work.  

Eli Lehrer is president and co-founder of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. He lives in Herndon, Va., with his wife, Kari, and son, Andrew.

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