Throughout the past year, the Trump administration has made criminal justice reform one of its paramount issues. As early as April 2018, for example, ABC News reported that sources close to the President indicated he was open to sentencing reforms. Since then, Jared Kushner has hosted a series of criminal justice roundtables at the White House and the President, who has embraced the cause both in theory and in action, famously pardoned Alice Johnson—a 63-year-old grandmother—from the unnecessarily extreme sentence she was serving for her role in a drug trafficking operation in the early ‘90s.
Now, the administration has a golden opportunity to solidify its commitment to advance criminal justice reform. This week, the United States Senate will vote to send the “First Step Act” to President Trump for signature. Originally introduced in the House by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), this bipartisan legislation focuses on improving and expanding programs to help inmates prepare for release via educational courses, vocational training and drug-abuse recovery plans. In doing so, it promotes public safety and makes an important step toward addressing the nation’s well-established sentencing and over-incarceration problems.
For those who follow developments in the arena of criminal justice policy, many of the proposals in the Act will be familiar, as the federal government has looked to already-successful, state-level reforms for inspiration. For example, policies embodied in Michigan’s Vocational Village, Virginia’s Step-Down Program and New York’s Rehabilitation can be found throughout the legislation. Pursuing models that have borne fruit in the states is an eminently sensible approach, since 95 percent of those in prison will eventually be released and studies have shown that educational and job training programs reduce recidivism and improve public safety outcomes.
Because the scope of the bill is broad, its specifics are many. High points abound and range from investment in training programs, to revisions in sentencing guidelines, to the outright repeal of the now-infamous “Three Strikes” law.
On the investment front, the Act expands the range of nonprofits that are allowed to supplement programs within prisons. One such example is the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP). The PEP connects recently released inmates with executives and entrepreneurs, and focuses on teaching them leadership and innovation skills. And, it’s a program with a track record of success. PEP has graduated over 1,300 participants who have gone on to careers with starting wages 60 percent higher than the minimum wage. Furthermore, almost 100 percent were still employed 12 months after their release, and the recidivism rate for graduates is below 7 percent.
When it comes to sentencing, the bill includes long-overdue revisions to some of the most unnecessarily harsh laws in the federal system. For instance, it addresses the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine by allowing those who were convicted under harsher terms to seek reprieve. It also allows “good behavior” to be calculated differently, permitting a history of good behavior during a person’s sentence to decrease their length of incarceration.
Most importantly, the law would amend the “three strikes law” to allow for shorter prison sentences for repeat offenders. Specifically, it would shorten federal three-strikes drug penalties from life in prison to 25 years, and two-strikes drug penalties from 20 years to 15. These developments are an important step in the realization that longer sentences do not yield a greater deterrence effect. On the contrary, all they do is result in the highest rate of First-World incarceration, as the United States currently has more than one million people behind bars.
There is much to celebrate in the First Step Act and in the Trump administration’s willingness to embrace the cause of criminal justice reforms. The demonstrably effective policies embodied within it will literally transform hundreds of thousands of lives for the better. What’s more, they will also improve public safety and better align the public’s investment with the fiscal outcomes it should expect from the federal justice system. For these reasons, passing and signing the First Step Act is vital.
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