What Is The First Step Act?
The latest such effort to come to our attention is the ”FIRST STEP Act”, introduced by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) in the House, with a companion measure introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in the Senate.
The First Step Act is not a magical elixir. It won’t solve every problem facing our criminal justice system. But it will immediately make a difference in the lives of as many as 4,000 inmates the day after it is signed into law.
We are a better America when we embrace our empathetic tendencies.
We are a better America when we see prison sentences as a last resort, to be used only when we know for a fact it is the best way to generate safe outcomes.
Some people have argued that one of the elements of the bill, the rule that moves people closer to home, can threaten public safety. But copious evidence proves that being incarcerated or housed closer to home results in safer outcomes.
Some also worry that the Act will further reinforce Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ harsh approach to crime and punishment. But it’s unclear how legislation that uses unconditional language about mandated reform somehow would make the lives of prisoners worse or his power greater.
Sessions will not remain Attorney General forever, and with criminal justice reform gathering supporters on both sides of the aisle, the likelihood can only grow that in the future we will have a true reformer in the position.
I suspect the real fear is that Jeff Sessions will use some of the provisions of the Act in ways that are racially disparate, while at the same time sentencing continues to over-punish people of color. This is a weighty concern, and we should fight every day to address racial disparities in sentencing and remain incredibly vigilant.
But this is not a new concern, nor is it something the First Step can make worse.
Some also object to the use of risk assessment tools to inform sentencing decisions, arguing they can be used in a biased way.
To understand better, here are the four separate titles:
Title I — Recidivism Reduction
Title II — Bureau of Prisons Secure Firearms Storage
Title III — Restraints on Pregnant Prisoners Prohibited
Title IV — Miscellaneous Criminal Justice
Titles II and III are of little moment to this examination. Titles I and IV, however, are.
Title I. Takes on various aspects of existing federal incarceration practices and policies with the idea of substantially altering them. For instance, the bill would provide significant benefits to federal prisoners who participate in various “evidence-based recidivism reduction programs” that are intended to minimize the risk that prisoners will reoffend upon release. It does so by requiring that such programs be examined and further defined by the attorney general, in consultation with the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the director of the Office of Probation and Pretrial Services, and the directors of the National Institutes of Justice and Corrections.
Chief among the benefits that accrue from participation in the resulting programs is that prisoners would earn “good time” toward sentence reductions — 10 days for every 30 days of sentence, and an additional five days for every 30 if they are assessed twice in a row as “not having increased” their recidivism risk. In other words, prisoners could potentially cut their sentencing time in half through these programs. Many observers might see it as a low bar to cut sentences in half simply because prisoners don’t become more incentivized to reoffend, but that is a general statement not applicable to removable aliens, as explained below.
Prisoners would also earn free telephone and videoconferencing privileges (30 minutes per day; 510 minutes per month) via participation in the recidivism reduction programs.
The kinds of programs envisioned under recidivism reduction, include in part the following:
Social learning and communication, interpersonal, anti-bullying, rejection response, and other life skills;
Family relationship building;
Structured parent-child interaction and parenting skills;
Classes on morals or ethics;
Cognitive behavioral treatment;
Faith-based classes or services;
Civic engagement and reintegrative community services; and
Title IV. Under the catch-all “Miscellaneous” provisions, establishes two new mandates.
First, there is a presumptive standard (subject to certain caveats such as prisoner classification and facility availability) that federal prisoners should be incarcerated at penal facilities no farther than 500 miles from their “primary residence”.
Second, Title IV also provides that ”The Bureau of Prisons shall, to the extent practicable, place prisoners with lower risk levels and lower needs on home confinement for the maximum amount of time permitted.” (Emphasis added.)
Immigration Enforcement Concerns Raised by the Bill.
When it comes to prison reform, a little something is better than a lot of nothing.
That is why the bipartisan First Step Act, passed recently by the House, deserves to be approved by the Senate and signed into law.
Progressives are sharply divided on the measure, mostly because of what it doesn’t do. The bill — sponsored by Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Doug Collins, R-Ga., and strongly pushed by President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner — does nothing to address the main problem, which is that this nation sends far too many people to prison and keeps them locked up far too long.
Truly meaningful change would involve sentencing reform, for which there is some bipartisan support in Congress but not enough to get such legislation through both chambers. It is hard to imagine that Trump, who tries so hard to project a tougher-than-thou image, would sign a bill significantly reducing sentences. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who believes in throwing away the key, would have a conniption fit.
The First Step Act ignores the “front end” of the problem — sentencing — and focuses exclusively on the “back end.” It would provide $50 million a year for five years in new funding for education and rehabilitation programs in federal prisons, encourage inmates to participate in those programs by giving them credits for early release, and allow some prisoners to serve the balance of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement.
Proponents estimate the bill would allow up to 4,000 inmates to be released from prison immediately. This is a small fraction of the total federal prison population of nearly 184,000. But try to explain that disparity to those 4,000 men and women and their families.
The bill also requires that inmates be housed at prisons within 500 miles of their homes, that inmates not be shackled during childbirth and recovery and that sanitary products be provided to female prisoners.
The House vote on the First Step Act was 360-59, with Democrats sharply divided. Some of the most progressive members of the Democratic caucus supported the bill and some voted against it. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund lobbied against the bill; the National Urban League urged approval.
There is reason to question whether the bill’s benefits will be as great as supporters claim, and of course there is reason to prefer more comprehensive legislation that also deals with sentencing. But I see no justification, in this case, for opposing incremental progress — especially since real progress is nowhere in sight.
It is true that we will never begin to reform our shameful system of mass incarceration and warehousing until we address sentences. We send to prison far too many men and women whose nonviolent or minor crimes should be handled without incarceration. African-American and Hispanic men are unfairly targeted by sentencing rules and biased police practices. While in prison, inmates get essentially no preparation for rebuilding their lives upon release. Far too often, they revert to crime and wind up back in prison.
Opponents of the First Step Act argue that passing this limited measure would relieve pressure on Congress and the administration to address the issues at the heart of the prison problem.
My question is: What pressure?
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wants to push sentencing reform legislation through the Senate, and I hope he succeeds. But how is anyone going to get such a bill through the House, with its much more conservative GOP majority? How is anyone going to get Sessions on board? Or convince Trump to sign it?
If Democrats take control of the House in November, they will be able to revisit the issue anytime they want , but they will have real clout to go along with their passion.
Nothing in the current bill precludes bolder, more comprehensive action when the votes, and the president’s pen, are lined up and ready..
Suggestions For Reforms:
The ultimate prison reform is to keep people out of prison in the first place. This is where state-level reforms can make a difference.
If there is to be any meaningful change in prison populations nationally, the states must step up.
Here are 3 effective reforms they should consider.
First, make it easier for people to get a job. Criminology is imprecise, but research and anecdotal evidence suggest a great way to keep people out of the criminal justice system is to let them work. The stabilizing influence of a job and a steady income cannot be overstated, so removing needless barriers to employment such as occupational licensing requirements should be a priority for states. At a minimum, they should make sure that licensing laws don’t contain “good moral character clauses,” which can automatically disqualify anyone with any type of criminal record from ever getting licensed.
Second, states should focus on enforcement. Even when most adults have a job, crime will occur, and that’s where good policing policy comes in. Michigan, with its dubious distinction of being home to some of the most dangerous cities in America, had remarkable success in reducing violent and property crime in these places through the Secure Cities Partnership, which brought together state and local law enforcement. An effective combination of hot spot patrolling (focusing policing resources on high-crime areas) and community policing (building police-community ties) saw crime rates dip as much as 40 percent in some areas. And fewer crimes translate to fewer prisoners.
Third, use problem-solving courts more frequently. These legal innovations afford judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and offenders the flexibility to address factors in a person’s life that may be contributing to criminal behavior. Drug courts, sobriety courts, mental health courts, veterans’ courts and other specialty dockets connect offenders to treatment, counseling and other services, and enforce accountability through the use of short, frequent jail sentences.
These courts also are important for prosecutors, who traditionally have been equipped with only the hammer of formal prosecution and may feel pressure to rack up convictions to help secure reelection. Problem-solving courts give them another tool, helping them bolster public safety sustainably by addressing underlying issues unique to their communities — something that may become increasingly important as the opioid crisis develops.
From a policy perspective, the FIRST STEP Act would be just that: a good first step.
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Brāv can help with their conflicts even taking place within family.
Brāv can provide the online counseling and fire sides as well, discussion group once they are released.
Participating in discussion threads would help them with coping and job skills, which in turn will help them reenter society as citizens more capable of productive reentry.
Helping the ones bullied-
New inmates violently extorted, assaulted, and “recruited” (the kindest way to put it) into gangs. Weak punished and strength defined solely by the willingness to engage in brutality.
Being in prison is a process of constantly having to watch your back (and your front). When trouble comes, it comes quickly and seems to inevitably sweep bystanders into the vortex.
Prisoners of the Federal Bureau of Prisons are judged entirely on records made up only by correctional officers and unit counselors which are inherently more subjective, less testable over time, and based on less outcomes-based data, than risk-assessment too. This gets them to be more depressed.
So, in addition to allowing inmates to more quickly reconnect with children and family members, Brāv can actually help them to build a productive life.
There’s always a way to redeem.
You need the right support and motivation to be on the track.