The Violent Crime Control Act and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, better known as the Crime Bill, led to mass incarceration in the United States …. full stop. The groundwork for both punishment of those convicted and incentives for states/feds to lock people up for long periods of time started the single largest societal experiment on criminal justice. Many the bill as a failure yet some believe that even more strict laws should be enacted to incarcerate more. Whatever your belief, criminal justice is still a hot topic of debate.
At the time the Crime Bill was passed it was supported by then-Senator Joe Biden and signed by President Bill Clinton. Republicans, led by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, also enthusiastically supported it. In fact, two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) voted for it at the time. There is not a group, conservative, liberal, or in-between, who did not proclaim victory for addressing what they believed would lead to less violence and drug use. Jails were built on both grants and financial incentives at both the state and federal level. Between 1980 and 2013, the federal incarceration rate jumped 518 percent as we sent more people to prison and kept them there longer. Private prison companies gained traction and an industry was born.
While one would have hoped that legislative changes at the federal level would have led to meaningful changes, that has not happened. The First Step Act has fallen short and has yet to be fully implemented. Oddly, the best thing to happen to federal criminal justice reform has been COVID-19, a sad statement, which led the Federal Bureau of Prisons to transfer some their inmate population to home confinement.
One person whose voice is gaining more attention is that of Terrence Coffie, an adjunct lecturer at New York University Silver School of School of Social Work, who writes and teaches on criminal justice reform. Coffie has a pragmatic view of the problems that the Crime Bill has caused because before teaching at NYU his first real academic accomplishment was earning his GED in 1993 at Florida’s Marion Correctional Institution, while serving a five-year sentence for possession with intent to sell. Coffie told me in an interview, “I was 40 years old before I enrolled in Bronx Community College in 2010. After that, I was offered a scholarship to NYU, where I earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s. I had spent more than 19 years of my life in the cycle of incarceration.” That part of his life is long in the past.
Coffie admitted that the First Step Act looked like it was a good step to criminal justice reform. However, its promise of a long list of programs that help inmates earn credits toward more halfway house and home confinement has been bogged down by the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ inability to fully implement the program. COVID-19 has been the biggest factor facing the agency but Coffie is not hopeful that things will change. “Reduction in time behind bars is one thing, but the challenges faced by those coming out of prison are overwhelming,” Coffie said.
Those leaving prison need housing, education and work. Coffie said that each of these are complicated by the felony record. “A woman can leave prison and show up to live with a relative in a Section 8 housing and immediately put the tenant in jeopardy of a violation because a felon is in the house,” Coffie said. It is issues like that that nobody seems to want to address. Coffie has developed a Comprehensive Reentry Plan that he hopes to share with federal and State legislatures that he believes will dramatically reduce the prison population and cost to states, as well as a reallocation plan that will redirect funds to support reentry.
Coffie feels the privilege of not only teaching but for being a lecturer at NYU. “I think about what I am teaching these students and I don’t want to tell them just what the challenges are in achieving a more fair criminal justice system, but make them think about solutions,” Coffie said.
Coffie said, “I feel fortunate to be where I am in life and intend on taking advantage of this opportunity to right some wrongs and help a lot of people along the way.”