Right now it’s fairly quiet in Washington. Congress is out of session until the election and elected officials are hitting the campaign trail. But one thing Congress should keep in the back of their minds for when they come back in November is criminal justice reform and the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person (FIRST STEP) Act.
Notably, the bill incorporates recidivism reduction programs for minimal and low-risk offenders by providing time-release credits to inmates who participate in rehabilitative programs. Programs include courses on social learning, communication, family relationship building and substance abuse treatment.
Under the FIRST STEP Act, after periodic risk assessments, an inmate would be able to cash out their time credits to be granted pre-release custody. Under the FIRST STEP Act a prisoner would earn 10 days of time credits for every 30 days of successful participation in recidivism reduction programming.
The program is only available to low-risk offenders. Participating prisoners also receive periodic risk assessments to determine if they are safe for release, which provide guardrails for the program.
The bill would place early released prisoners in either a residential reentry center or in home confinement. States like Texas and Georgia have shown that the alternatives to prison, like electronic monitoring and home confinement are more effective at reducing criminality while still holding wrong-doers accountable.
If the goal of prison is to ensure that prisoners do not reoffend, prison needs to be a place where inmates learn skills that will allow them to become positive participants in society.
In a study, researchers found that within three years of being released, 67.8% of offenders were rearrested. Within five years of being released, 76.6% of released offenders were arrested again.
These common-sense reforms would positively impact lives by providing prisoners the tools they need so they do not become recidivists. By reducing recidivism, the First Step Act would also positively impact public safety as well.
The bill also includes reforms that would prohibit restraints on women during pregnancy, labor and postpartum recovery. If signed into law, the bill would also mandate that a terminally ill prisoner’s attorney must be contacted to prepare and submit a request for sentence reduction.
FIRST STEP Act is a common sense solution
The bottom line is that someone can’t be thrown in jail unless we make what he or she is doing illegal. We are putting too many Americans in prison for nonviolent crimes, wasting taxpayer dollars and tearing apart families in the process.
Currently there are 2.3 million individuals behind bars, costing $74 billion in federal spending. Due to the increasing prison population from 1980 until today, spending has more than quadrupled from $17 billion to $74 billion.
Congress will come back into session briefly following the election and before the New Year, at which time Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised a whip count on the FIRST STEP Act. The President has also expressed his support for the bipartisan bill, leaving the Senate floor vote as one of the final hurdles to overcome before the bill can become law.
The bill is a bipartisan effort that drastically and positively revamps the criminal justice system. The bill is sponsored by Congressman Doug Collins (R- Ga-9) in the House (H.R.5682) and has 19 cosponsors from both parties. The Senate version (S.2795) of the bill is sponsored by Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) and cosponsored by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). The House overwhelmingly passed the FIRST STEP Act in May, but the bill still awaits action in the Senate.
The FIRST STEP Act, along with the proposed sentencing reform items included in SRCA, would create a positive impact on the criminal justice system. We can’t afford for the clock to run out on this important piece of legislation.