Americans are an inherently compassionate but nevertheless fair people.
So while they believe in consequences for breaking the law, they also sympathize with the prisoner and with the potential for rehabilitation.
It's not surprising, then, that a bipartisan prison reform bill overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House Tuesday. The First Step Act offers inmates more opportunities for a GED, vocational and college courses, and substance abuse and mental health assistance.
The 360-59 vote should send a message to the Senate about the desire for politicians on both sides of the aisle to pass federal prison reforms, but Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wants sentencing reforms to be part of any prison legislation.
We don't disagree but hope in the end the good isn't sacrificed for the difficult.
Grassley's bipartisan bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, includes tenets like increased judicial discretion for the sentencing of certain nonviolent offenders, eliminating the three-strike mandatory life provision for certain nonviolent repeat drug offenders and allowing certain nonviolent offenders to petition courts for an individualized review of their sentence.
The bill has much to like but — despite passing out of committee earlier this year — doesn't have Trump administration support or a scheduled floor vote by Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Meanwhile, in spite of what many in the general public may believe about life sentences, "90 percent of all prisoners within the Bureau of Prisons will be released someday," according to U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "That is an indisputable fact. We also know that without programming and intervention, which can train prisoners to be better citizens, not better criminals, prisoners are more likely to recidivate."
The House bill also allows prisoners to earn seven more days of "good time" credit than they are currently earning annually, offers incentives for inmates to participate in new programs, gives the ability for federal inmates to serve the end of their sentences in halfway houses, provides the assurance prisoners would be incarcerated closer to their families and mandates that pregnant women would not be shackled.
Meanwhile, the Senate bill also limits solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody.
Coincidentally, on Tuesday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that adds new regulations to the state's "safekeeping" law. The addendums ban housing juvenile "safekeepers" in adult prisons and establish new oversight to ensure adult "safekeepers" don't languish in solitary confinement.
The so-named "safekeeping" law — used for more than 150 years — allows county judges to send a person accused of a crime to a Tennessee state prison if the judge determines the local jail cannot sufficiently house the accused, who may have specific medical, mental or behavioral issues. Such pre-trial detainees are always housed in solitary confinement.
The problem is many of the "safekeepers" are left there, some for more than a year, and the average stay — during a Dec. 31, 2017, snapshot of such prisoners — was 328 days.
Although juvenile and adult "safekeepers" may have committed horrific crimes, they don't deserve to be treated the same way as those who already have had their day in court and were convicted.
The law Haslam signed may help with that. It also mandates that juvenile "safekeepers" live at juvenile detention facilities and that all "safekeepers" have a mandatory monthly judicial review of their cases. Such a review might either return them to a county jail or determine if solitary confinement is still warranted.
Lawmakers were prompted to push for the changes following a February joint investigation of the "safekeepers" program by The Marshall Project and the USA Today Network-Tennessee.
In truth, it shouldn't have taken a newspaper investigation to have spurred such changes. Department of Corrections officials constantly should be reviewing their policies and procedures and seeking changes if they come across the likes of 15- and 16-year-old girls only accused of crimes but spending 23 hours a day in cells far away from home.
At the other end of the judicial spectrum are prisoners such as Billy Ray Irick, who was convicted of the Knox County rape and murder of a 7-year-old child in 1985. Even those who have compassion for prisoners wonder how a man who was sentenced to death nearly 32 years ago has been allowed to live more years behind bars than the 26 years of age he was when the crime was committed.
Although he confessed to the crime, his defense teams over the years have cited a childhood in which he was abused, claims of mental illness and the possible involvement of the victim's stepfather as mitigating factors.
A January Nashville Tennessean article said executions of death row inmates were to resume in May and that Irick would be executed Aug. 9, but as of the middle of last week no state prisoner has been executed since 2009.
Whether it's the treatment of teens only accused of crimes or the extended stay of death row inmates whose unspeakable acts repulse us, though, it's clear that sentencing and more general prison reforms couldn't happen too soon.