Criminal justice reform is alive in the halls of Congress.  On May 22nd, the FIRST STEP Act, sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) and a coalition of 19 bipartisan cosponsors, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 360-59.  The measure now moves to the Senate for consideration.

The FIRST STEP Act aims to solve some simple but pernicious problems plaguing federal prisons.  According to Vox.com’s detailed explainer (posted here), the bill attempts to reduce the federal prison population in the following ways:

  • The bill encourages inmates to participate in more vocational and rehabilitative programs, by letting them get “earned time credits” that allow them to be released early to halfway houses or home confinement. Not only could this mitigate prison overcrowding, but the hope is that the education programs will reduce the likelihood that an inmate will commit another crime once released and, as a result, reduce both crime and incarceration in the long term. (There’s research showing that education programs do reduce recidivism.)
  • The bill increases the amount of “good time credits” that inmates can earn. Inmates who avoid a disciplinary record can currently get credits of up to 47 days per year incarcerated. The bill increases the cap to 54, allowing well-behaved inmates to cut their prison sentence by an additional week for each year they’re incarcerated. The change applies retroactively, which could essentially allow some prisoners to be released the day the bill goes into effect.
  • Since the vocational and rehabilitative programs that already exist in federal prisons have a huge waitlist, the bill would authorize more funding — $50 million a year over five years — to support more programs. It also directs cost savings toward reentry and anti-recidivism programs. (Although any allocation of funds will need to be approved through Congress’s formal appropriations process in the future.)

That’s not all.  The bill reauthorizes the Second Chances Act and, among other things, clarifies provisions that are designed to help prisoners reintegrate into society.  Critically, it clarifies a provision requiring the Bureau of Prisons to help inmates obtain a state identification card prior to their release from prison, not after.  Since photo ID is essentially a prerequisite to finding employment, this provision makes it easier for the formerly incarcerated to find jobs.  That’s good for everyone – studies show that unemployment leads to recidivism, meaning that finding a job reduces the likelihood of someone committing another crime after release from prison.

Critics say The FIRST STEP Act is not enough.  But reform often comes in small increments. This law will help people who have earned it while taking action to crime. It achieves important goals while preserving the ability to attack bigger ones in future legislation. It achieved an overwhelming bipartisan majority in a Congress paralyzed by polarization.  Most people that are sent to prison will get out. It is in everyone’s interest that the time they spent in prison doesn’t handicap their ability to succeed in their second chance. Success is not only good for them and their families; it is good for our communities.  There is much more work to be done, but this bill is exactly what it advertises – a first step.

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