WASHINGTON – New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is unveiling new legislation that would give more federal prisoners the chance at early release, building on perviously passed criminal justice reform that some supporters say didn’t go far enough.
The First Step Act, passed in 2018, was a rare bipartisan feat in Congress, bringing some of the most liberal and conservative lawmakers together with President Donald Trump to enact the biggest reforms to the criminal justice system since the tough-on-crime laws of the 1980s and 1990s. While the new law led to the release of thousands of federal inmates, thousands more were ineligible.
William Underwood, 65 years years old, is one inmate who wasn’t eligible for release under the First Step Act. He has been in federal prison for 30 years, convicted of conspiracy, racketeering and non-violent drug-related crimes. Although it was his first felony conviction, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole under mandatory sentencing guidelines.
Booker, who first met Underwood in 2016, says he’s a prime example of the kind prisoner who should be eligible for release. He points to Underwood’s age, the time he’s already served and his record of good behavior as as reasons why more reforms are needed, noting that even the prison guards have said Underwood doesn’t belong there.
Booker’s legislation would address people like Underwood. The Matthew Charles and William Underwood Second Look Act, named after Underwood and Charles, the first person released because of the First Step Act, would give those serving long sentences a second chance.
The bill would also give people who have served more than ten years an opportunity to petition the court for release. And for prisoners over the age of 50, they would be offered the presumption of release, which means the the judge would have to show that the inmate should remain behind bars because they are a threat to society.
The measure likely faces an uphill battle in part because it would shift the burden onto the judicial system to make the case that a prisoner should remain locked up.
Another component that is expected to be controversial is that there is no exclusions for certain crimes. (The type of crimes included in the First Step Act encompassed low-level, non-violent crimes.) Booker’s office argues that it would be much tougher for someone convicted of a violent crime to be released because a court must find that the inmate is not a risk and the inmate must show readiness to re-enter society.
Booker’s proposed reforms attempt to address an aging prison population. The number of prisoners over the age of 55 has increased 280 percent since 1999, according to Pew, in large part because of tough sentencing laws that put people behind bars for decades. Elderly inmates now make up 11 percent of the prison population.
But the recidivism rate drops dramatically as people age. People under the age of 21 have a 68 percent re-arrest rate, compared to just 13 percent for those over 65, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
“I hope that this creates a much bigger pathway for people to be released, to save taxpayer dollars, to reunite families,” Booker said. “This system of mass incarceration that now has more African Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves in 1850 is an unjust system, and I intend to do everything I can to tear down the system of mass incarceration.”
Booker was instrumental in the passage of the First Step Act, which had the support of President Donald Trump under the direction of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Kim Kardashian.
As a presidential candidate he’s running against a number of candidates introducing plans revolving around criminal justice and his bill is a direct response to frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, who was critical to the passage of the tough-on-crime bills of the 80s and 90s. Biden is expected to unveil a criminal justice reform plan in the coming weeks, which is expected to include a prohibition on mandatory minimum sentences.
For his part, Underwood says he’s kept his focus on being a father and grandfather to his four children and three grandchildren.
“The children first. First and foremost. So, that’s what I tried to emulate, you know, the best I could,” Underwood, a former music promoter, said. “Well, you know, who knew this was gonna happen? I didn’t. I can’t foresee or foretell the future. You know, so, far as my children, you know, they have been a constant in my life.”
And his family is also fighting for him. His daughter, Ebony, has become a criminal justice activist and been fighting for his release. She said that she became hopeful when President Barack Obama worked on criminal justice reform but was disappointed when the Obama administration declined to offer her father clemency, offering no explanation.
Abut after the passage of the First Step Act and the possibility of potential updates to the legislation, Ebony feels much more hopeful.
“I’m hoping and praying that this is finally it for us,” she said. “We too have been incarcerated, it feels like, for last 30 years.”
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Julián Castro’s mother, Rosie, sees a ‘different’ racism in El Paso massacre
In the 1960s and the ’70s, when Rosie Castro was active in the Chicano Movement, she saw injustice in the low graduation and college acceptance rates of fellow Chicanos.
Police wouldn’t go into “our barrios” and there was no health care in the neighborhoods, except the tuberculosis huts built in the 1930s and the ’40s on the west side of San Antonio, the mother of Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro and Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, said.
Rosie Castro said her fight then was about inequality and creating a better country in which Mexican Americans and others were not treated as second-class citizens or as a conquered people who were somehow inferior.
But she told NBC News that white supremacy, high-powered weapons, and the rhetoric and actions of President Donald Trump are at a far different level.
The domestic terror attack in El Paso, where police say a gunman using a military assault-style rifle intentionally targeted Latinos, killing 22 people and injuring 25 others, is not the same kind of racism she fought, Castro said.
“When I was in the movement, I knew the racism was out there and it was institutional. This kind of racism is different,” she told NBC News on Tuesday.
Like so many other Americans, Castro was stunned as her phone began getting news alerts about the Aug. 3 shootings. She first checked on a friend who runs a shelter for homeless women and children in El Paso, who was not at the Walmart where the shooting took place.
The possibility that the shooting was a hate crime targeted at Latinos “entered my mind very quickly” because of the anti-Latino rhetoric, particularly from the president, she said.
“That rhetoric has gone on for three years now, and I think we’ve all seen the rise of the hate groups and then even the rise of just ordinary people in a store that feel empowered to say something to a person who is speaking Spanish or is dark skinned,” she said.
When Trump was elected, “it was like a flashback to the ’60s and ’70s, but now in some ways it’s worse,” she said.
“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, we were dealing with what I considered terrible presidents — Nixon and Reagan,” she said, adding that as governor of California from 1967 to 1975, Ronald Reagan (who was elected president in 1980) fought against farm workers as they organized strikes and boycotts.
But “nothing has come close” to the current political climate, she said.
“There’s just no reason in the world I can see someone who is the elected head of our government, who purports to be a Christian, that can say the kinds of things that have aroused hatred in people, that have allowed people who maybe had quietly these thoughts of immigrants taking over or whatever,” she said. “He’s just allowed that to become a blatant racist part of our reality.”
Castro worries about the proliferation of gun violence, especially in schools, saying children are afraid they could get shot just by going to class.
A longtime civil rights activist
Long before her twin sons became up-and-coming stars on the national political scene, Castro was taking on institutions of power in San Antonio and the rest of Texas.
The daughter of a Mexican immigrant and single mother, she defied the odds for Mexican Americans at the time, graduated at the top of her high school class and went on to attend Our Lady of the Lake University, a Catholic school in San Antonio.
It took her a little longer to get her bachelor’s degree because she left school to follow and teach children of migrant farmworkers who traveled from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley to Michigan. She earned a master’s degree years later.
“In my time, the fight was about equality and really people had this idea of creating a better country, a country in which all people could really be created equal, really have equal opportunity,” she said.
Her work with La Raza Unida Party in the 1970s has often been a focus of media attention as her sons have moved up the political ranks. She and others were considered radicals for their push for a third party, she told the Texas Observer for a December 2015 story.
But at the time, there were few blacks and Latinos in office or in the national Democratic Party infrastructure, so the alternative party was the only way to try to get minorities into elected offices.
Her 1971 run for San Antonio City Council, which she lost, was an attempt to get more representation for the city’s Mexican Americans. Her son, Julián Castro, was elected to the council three decades later.
Castro actively worked to help the then-nascent Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund with research for its various legal challenges on voting rights, redistricting and other issues of discrimination.
She helped gather data for the fund to present to Congress to show that Latinos and other groups still were being denied full voting rights a decade after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She also dug into county title records, stored in large, heavy books because desktop computers were not yet common, to investigate deed restrictions that kept Latinos from buying homes in white neighborhoods in San Antonio.
“You could have a Latino or African American living there, but only as a servant,” she said. She later worked for the San Antonio housing authority.
“You could not stand there and let what was happening happen,” she said. “I look back sometimes and say, yeah, I could have stayed in teaching and probably had a better income and all that stuff. I didn’t buy a house until 2009. … But, you know, there was too much to get done and we still haven’t finished.”
While Latinos are still underrepresented in elected offices, the day Castro spoke to NBC News she had learned just a few hours earlier that Julián Castro had qualified for the Democratic Party’s September and October debates.
“Today we are super happy,” Castro said Tuesday. “I was hoping and praying. They’ve worked so hard, his team and him, so I was really praying they would get on this debate. So now we have it.”
She noted that Sept. 12-13 debate in Houston will fall just a few days before her sons’ birthday — Sept. 16, the day Mexico celebrates its “cry of independence,” or revolt against Spain.
Castro said that for a few years, she had been happy to leave the activism and leadership role to younger people, like her sons.
She expected in her lifetime she would see the first woman president. Then Trump won the election, defeating Hillary Clinton. His election was a rude awakening that made her realize “everybody has to be in on trying to make the changes that need to be made,” she said.
“I think what happened in El Paso, it cements things. Just like Trump’s election was a rude awakening, this was a rude awakening on how somebody would want to kill you,” she said.
“It’s one thing to look at institutional racism,” she said. “It’s a total other thing to look at somebody wanting to kill you.”
It remains to be seen whether the El Paso shootings become a rallying point for Latinos in next year’s elections, in the primaries and November.
But Castro said the Latino vote is already growing. Groups like the Texas Organizing Project, whose board she serves on, as well as Mi Familia Vota, Voto Latino and others are targeting nonregular voters. They’re seeing results, “despite all the laws that are hurting us” such as voter ID requirements, she said.
“All these groups are making inroads. To me, it’s like the ’60s and ’70s … they’re making a difference,” she said.
“And I hope and pray now you’ll get people who will come to them who will want to get registered, who will want to vote, because that is the only way that we get out of this situation,” Castro said. “We have to change the leadership both in Texas and at the federal level.”
She hopes, of course, that the nation’s next White House occupant is her son Julián.
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