A toast to criminal justice reform

A toast to criminal justice reform
© Getty Images

Incarceration has an upside in that it may have accounted for as much as 35 percent of the drop in violent crime since the 1980s. But it also allows for negative attitudes to fester among inmates before they return back to society. The First Step Act may offer a way to square the circle by enabling law enforcement to remain tough on offenders with appropriately long prison sentences even as it expands prison programs designed to reduce crime. The bill would also end programs that are ineffective and wasteful.

It is no surprise that many law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police, International Association of Chiefs of Police, National District Attorneys Association, and National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, support the First Step Act. Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, who is a former deputy sheriff, said similar reforms in the state have reduced crime by 6 percent and saved $40 million.


That excellent news is no surprise, either, because other conservative states including Texas, Georgia, and Kansas have also adopted similar measures and seen crime go down. Jim Arnold knows this story well. He said that he joined a Toastmasters program at the age of 45 because he was too scared to even open his mouth in Bible study. “The program so dramatically changed my life for the better,” Arnold said. “I knew it would do the same for the guys I was mentoring in prison at the time.”

Toastmasters teaches participants the values of integrity, respect, service, and excellence primarily through giving speeches, gaining feedback, leading teams, and guiding others to achieve their goals in a supportive atmosphere. Arnold formed the nonprofit prison ministry Skills for Life to bring those much needed values of the Toastmasters curriculum to inmates across his home state of Texas. Years later, Skills for Life still remains “dedicated to providing inmates with the servant leadership and communication skills they need to live lives of excellence” after prison.

The programs also encourage inmates to use these valuable tools while incarcerated in an effort to change the culture in prison. “I have been determined not to succumb to the notoriously negative impact that prison life has on personal character,” one participant wrote in a letter to Skills for Life. “I intend to continue working toward my goal of self improvement and becoming an effective speaker, which will be useful skills useful in my job search once released and also in retaining that job once I get it.”

Skills for Life records the recidivism rates of its program participants, and they are significantly lower than the average recidivism rates across Texas. The First Step Act would allow private organizations and nonprofit groups such as Skills for Life to bring federal inmates programs designed and evaluated with one clear goal in mind, which is to increase the number of people who leave prison ready to join the workforce and never return.

Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerDeutsche Bank launches investigation into longtime banker of Trump, Kushner Watchdog group accuses Stephen Miller of violating Hatch Act with Biden comments Ivanka and Kushner earned at least M in outside income last year: financial disclosures MORE, senior adviser to President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE, and Tomas Philipson, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in an opinion column last month, “If recent trends hold, almost half of federal inmates who were conditionally released will be rearrested within five years of release.” To address that public safety problem, the First Step Act would subject each inmate to an assessment to identify their risk of recidivating, as well as any particular problems that may send them back to prison, such as mental health or anger management issues, and match inmates to evidence based programs that would address those issues.

The bill would provide incentives to participate in and complete those programs. Low risk inmates could earn time credits they could “cash in” to serve the final portion of their sentence under community confinement so long as they maintain good behavior. The First Step Act carries a long list of exclusions from the earned time credit incentives that would apply to many serious and violent offenders. But higher risk inmates could earn incentives in the form of additional phone or visitation time and the like.

Opportunities to further reduce crime are plenty. The Justice Department has reported that occupational training programs have seen a 33 percent reduction in recidivism among participants. Federal Prison Industries, a work skills program, has seen as much as a 24 percent reduction, while education programs have seen a 16 percent reduction, and residential drug abuse treatment programs have seen a 15 percent reduction.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers recently found that, as Kushner and Philipson wrote in their opinion column, “Certain prison programs not only reduce crime, but also lower overall prison spending by reducing the costs associated with prison reentry.” It estimated that mental health or substance abuse treatment may reduce the overall costs of crime and incarceration by up to $5 for every $1 invested by taxpayers.

The Senate has an easy decision on criminal justice reform. As legal expert Paul Larkin wrote in the Harvard Journal, “The question is whether we should simply warehouse prisoners until they have served their sentences or provide them with educational, substance abuse, anger management, job training programs and the like in the hope that those offerings may reduce, if not eliminate, the risk that they will recidivate.”

John Michael Seibler is a legal fellow with the Edwin Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation in Washington.