Issue in Focus
Nov 30 2018
Over incarceration is a very real threat facing our nation; it breaks down bonds with family and community and often times the prisoners are released with few skills and lacking the ability to truly reenter society, resulting in a higher likelihood to reoffend.
This isn’t to say that those who commit crimes should be given a slap on the wrist and sent on their way. We are, after all, a country of law and order. However, that same law and order requires we dole out justice fairly. When doled out unfairly, it causes a breakdown in trust of our law enforcement officials. This, too, leads to higher rates of recidivism and makes our country less safe.
That is why a bipartisan group of legislators, law enforcement agents, and jurists have been working together to address these problems. Our solution is the First Step Act.
The prison reform aspect of the bill deals primarily with expanding time credits that are earned for good behavior and participation in recidivism-reduction programs. Federal inmates use these credits to secure transfer from prison to pre-release custody — meaning home confinement, supervised release, or a halfway house.
Under this bill, not all inmates are eligible to earn those credit. The bill lists 50 offenses that automatically disqualify an inmate from earning these credits. The remaining inmates are eligible only if they their prison warden, using data-based standards developed by the attorney general and an independent commission, determines they’re a low recidivism risk.
For eligible inmates, the warden will individually tailor the type and amount of recidivism-reduction programming and activities.
These recidivism-reduction programs are designed by federal prison wardens. Additionally, the bill mandates data analysis on the effectiveness of each recidivism-reduction program. If the program is not proven effective, wardens will not award time for participating in it.
This bill does not allow dangerous criminals to earn early release. Beyond excluding those 50 specifically dangerous offenses, it directs experienced law-enforcement officers to determine whether an offender is dangerous.
These officers are not government bureaucrats or elected officials who have outside agendas. These are professionals, doing a job they already do daily in order to run the nation’s federal prisons. Similar risk assessments have already been implemented in Texas and Georgia, and these states are hardly criminal havens.
There have been concerns about how fentanyl dealers would be affected under our bill, especially in light of the continued fight against opioids. According to the Sentencing Commission, the 56 people who were sentenced for fentanyl dealing in 2017 and who’s sentences would have been affected by our bill would still be sentenced to an average of 211 months — or 17 years and seven months – in prison. Not exactly soft on crime.
The bill also allows some judicial oversight of mandatory minimums. However, this “safety valve” cannot apply to offenders who threatened or perpetrated violence or bodily harm, or possessed a firearm or other dangerous weapon. In order for this to apply, offenders would also have to cooperate with law enforcement to go after higher-level offenders.
Criminal-justice-reform in the 20th century has been led by conservatives who understood that law and order is built on the responsible use of government power, tight-knit communities, a vibrant civil society, strong families, and personal responsibility
The FIRST STEP Act is a chance to continue that legacy.