After years of talking about reforming the federal prison system, Congress may finally be ready to act.
The House Judiciary Committee recently approved the FIRST STEP Act, H.R. 5682, by a strong vote of 25-5, paving the way for a vote on the House floor. The bill may not be the comprehensive criminal justice reform that everyone wants, but it does mark an important step toward lowering recidivism rates and promoting safety in communities across the country.
Every prisoner would be subject to a risk and needs assessment, and offered the opportunity to participate in programming to lower his or her likelihood of recidivism. Prisoners are incentivized to successfully complete the programming by allowing qualifying offenders to cash in successful completion of programming to serve a portion of their sentence in transitional housing, including a halfway house or home confinement.
The FIRST STEP Act is modeled after the successful, evidence-based initiatives of more than 30 states to reduce recidivism rates by providing rehabilitative programming — including drug treatment, education, and job training — in prisons. States like Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas have become national leaders in the effort to give people a second chance to become productive tax-paying citizens.
Recent data compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 35 states successfully reduced crime rates between 2008 and 2016 while also reducing imprisonment rates. Many of these states implemented programming similar to what will be required by FIRST STEP Act.
The list is a proverbial “who’s who” of criminal justice reform. National leaders like Georgia and Texas have seen declines in both crime and imprisonment rates. Alabama and Mississippi have also seen tremendous progress using in-prison programs designed to reduce recidivism and diversion programs to address addiction.
Seeing this level of success at the state level inspired Gov. Matt Bevin (R-Ky.) and Gov. Doug Ducey (R-Ariz.) to make criminal justice reform a part of their legislative agendas.
“With a rising prison population, severely depleted workforce participation rates, and the highest percentage in the nation of children with at least one incarcerated parent, we unfortunately had plenty of room for improvement,” wrote Gov. Bevin in November 2017. “For years Kentucky had maintained an outdated, ‘lock-em-up and throw away the key’ approach. That was unsustainable from both a societal and financial cost and we were determined to shake up the status quo.”
The states have spoken. Now, it’s time to bring evidence-based criminal justice reform to the national level. President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE dedicated part of his first State of the Union address to endorsing prison reform. He told Congress:
“As America regains its strength, this opportunity must be extended to all citizens. That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”
Additionally, a group of 121 former federal prosecutors have sent a letter to congressional leadership urging passage of the FIRST STEP Act. They cite benefits of the legislation for federal law enforcement and for public safety, saying that this bill “will increase the safety of our communities and the law enforcement agents and officers who protect them.”
Opponents of the FIRST STEP Act are using falsehoods and scare-tactic terms like “jailbreak” to stoke opposition to the bill. It’s bizarre to see a group of individuals so passionately dedicated to making sure their fellow Americans don’t become productive members of society.
State-level efforts have proven that criminal justice reform works. The vast majority of offenders will be released from prison at some point. It makes financial and moral sense to prevent them from resuming a life of crime after returning to their families.
There is a long road ahead for comprehensive criminal justice reform. But passing the FIRST STEP Act would be, well, the logical first step.
Adam Brandon is the president of FreedomWorks.