Our nation is at its best when all Americans are able to get an education, pursue their dreams, and build rewarding careers. Currently, the U.S. Senate is set to vote on a bill that will improve the possibility for incarcerated individuals to realize these American ideals by expanding job skills education programs within federal prisons. Named the FIRST STEP Act, this legislation empowers those committed to reforming their lives with opportunities to learn the hard and soft skills to land jobs and thrive when re-entering society.

The goal of this legislation is simple yet noble: reform our nation’s federal prison system and reduce recidivism rates. A rare bipartisan compromise, the FIRST STEP Act is supported by liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike, including President Donald J. Trump and senior advisor to the president Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerMueller considered charging campaign aides in Trump Tower meeting but lacked evidence There could be a turning point in Israeli-Palestinian peace effort Durbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' MORE, who aim to pass the legislation before the end of 2018.

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Reducing America’s prison population is good for everyone. It allows America to stay true to the idea that we believe in second chances, reduces burdens on taxpayers and offers opportunities for incarcerated individuals to successfully reenter society. The FIRST STEP Act was carefully crafted to ensure justice is served while reforming sentencing and increasing the number of vocational and rehabilitation programs for eligible inmates, which can decrease recidivism rates. 

The legislation would require the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide assessments as inmates’ sentences begin to determine what type of support individuals would need to help prevent recidivism, such as drug and alcohol counseling, education and skills development. Under this legislation, inmates could also earn credits for continued commitment and participation in education programs, which could be used to moderately reduce sentences. This incentive would allow individuals to focus on their future by mastering a craft that would help lead to gainful employment upon their release.

The FIRST STEP Act also allows prisons to improve rehabilitation efforts by establishing partnerships with organizations like Associated Builders and Contractors, a national construction trade association that operates educational and apprenticeship programs across the United States, or other education institutions, nonprofits, private businesses and faith-based groups that can deliver skills education, certifications or donate equipment. These partnerships benefit everyone— not only are inmates receiving the most up-to-date skills but the connections they make with organizations can lead to employment upon release.

The legislation also outlines the benefits of industry-recognized education programs, which teach market-driven skills and allows individuals to earn portable and stackable credentials upon completion.

There are many technical education courses across the United States that can be replicated within the federal prison system, like Project JumpStart, a 14-week pre-apprenticeship program in Baltimore. A partnership between ABC Baltimore and the Job Opportunities Task Force, Project JumpStart provides intensive classroom and hands-on training to low-income Baltimore City residents—including many who have been formerly incarcerated. 

The program, which uses industry-recognized curricula to teach carpentry, electrical and plumbing skills, works with more than 150 area companies to place JumpStart graduates in jobs and set them on a career path beyond an entry-level position. Since 2006, Project JumpStart has graduated more than 800 people and has an 80 percent job placement rate.

Given the workforce shortage impacting industries across the United States, the FIRST STEP Act is especially welcome. ABC estimates there are 500,000 construction jobs ready to be filled right now, and that number will increase with economic growth and forthcoming federal infrastructure legislation. The shortage has been made worse by the disproportionate emphasis our nation has placed on a college education for recent generations, compared to the fulfilling and lucrative career opportunities a technical education can provide. The skills gap extends throughout the construction industry, which has made it even more important that we not only recruit the next generation of construction workers but educate and retain our current workforce.

Passage of the FIRST STEP Act would aid the partnerships between the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and programs like Project JumpStart, which can be duplicated across the country. It is also a critical first step to reforming the United States’ criminal justice system and allow returning citizens to have the opportunity to build their careers and achieve the American dream.

Greg Sizemore is vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development at the Associated Builders and Contractors in Washington, D.C.