‘First Step’ welcome, but we’re climbing wrong criminal justice Staircase
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The bipartisan First Step Act would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences, support programming aimed at reducing recidivism, and provide relief for those convicted of harsher sentences for crack cocaine offenses, which are racially discriminatory.

Focusing on sentencing to provide temporary relief of prison populations should be applauded, but we need to reform what’s happening in state and local prison systems if we want to make a real impact on mass incarceration in the United States.

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The First Step Act applies to the federal system of criminal justice, which is miniscule compared to the state systems. According the Prison Policy Initiative, of the roughly 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., fewer than 10 percent are held at the federal level.

The U.S., with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, currently holds 25 percent of those incarcerated globally. Most American inmates lack a high school education, and come from poor, underfunded school systems. Pulling themselves out of poverty is a struggle, and thus many end up incarcerated. It is no surprise that our jails are stocked with folks who are poor, black or brown.

The vast majority reside in state prisons and local jails, areas untouched by this legislation. Although the First Step Act could be a case of the federal government providing leadership and signaling much-needed reform, the actual impact of this legislation is a drop in the ocean.

More problematic, this legislation is focused on the back end of the criminal justice system rather than offering any relief on the “churn” of admissions that continue to fill our jails and prisons. While increased funding to reduce recidivism is a positive step, it will apply only to those who have spent time in the system. Ultimately, our goal should be to keep individuals out of the system altogether.

During my time working as a prison guard in Nebraska, one county was notorious for bringing in loads of inmates thanks to the efforts of a joint task force of state and federal officials. Unfortunately, most of those jailed were low-level drug offenders and contributed more toward prison overpopulation than public safety.

As counterproductive as this program was, it demonstrates that federal, state, and local authorities can cooperate when there is a desire to do so. Local and state officials currently can apply for federal grants to aid law enforcement in drug interdiction, but less than 20 percent of those in state prisons are drug offenders. Rather than focusing cooperation on locking people up, authorities at the federal through local levels should work together to improve communities through reducing poverty and improving underperforming schools. In other words, collaborate to shut off the spigot that drives incarceration.

In Illinois, for example, counties with high incarceration rates receive grants to reduce incarceration. The grants require county officials to collaborate to find effective ways to divert individuals from incarceration. In addition to pre-trial diversions aimed at avoiding incarceration, this program is used to keep offenders out of local jails simply because they cannot pay fines and court fees.

We need to stop clogging jails with those who need substance abuse support, represent a minimal threat to the public and/or are unable to pay fines. This will give law enforcement more time to deal with those who present serious ongoing threats to the public.

The First Step Act is a positive sign for the small number of people affected, and because it signals a smarter approach than warehousing nearly 2.3 million people in prisons across the country. But if our federal government really wants to reduce our nation’s prison population, it can think outside the box and work with local communities to provide equal education and job opportunities for all citizens. 

Such efforts will not be cheap, but it moves us in the direction of a lasting reduction in mass incarceration in the U.S., which in the long run has been shown to be more cost-effective.

The First Step Act is just that. Now it’s time to chip away at the sad reality that a child’s zip code is his or her destiny.

Robert E. Bohrer II, associate provost and dean of public policy programs at Gettysburg College, also worked as a correctional officer at the Lincoln Correctional Center in Lincoln, Neb.