The Trump administration – and the criminal justice reform movement – scored a big win last week when the House of Representatives passed the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person (“FIRST STEP”) Act.

The Act, introduced by Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., seeks to do precisely what its name suggests: take a first step in the right direction in the fight for criminal justice reform, most prominently in the realm of prisoner re-entry.

As it stands, 97 percent of all federal inmates will ultimately be released from prison. Most will re-enter society with little to no preparation for life outside the penitentiary walls. The lack of drug treatment programs, skills training and education within prisons is one of reasons why recently-released inmates have trouble reintegrating into their communities.

Indeed, a study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that over an eight-year period, 49 percent of former federal inmates were rearrested for new crimes or violations of their release agreements. Of those charged with crimes, 31 percent where found guilty and 24 percent were sent back to prison.

The crux of bill focuses on addressing this problem by improving and expanding programs aimed at helping inmates prepare for release. It would do so by giving inmates increased access to various programs like education, job and life skills training, and drug treatment programs. More importantly, the bill allows prisons to tailor these programs to fit the individual needs of each inmate, which will increase the benefits inmates receive from participating. This investment in training and rehabilitation would help lower the recidivism rates while at the same time making communities safer.

The FIRST STEP Act would also authorize the Bureau of Prisons to offer new incentives for those who complete rehabilitation programs while in prison. Some of the highlights include more phone time, increased visitation privileges and more money to spend in the commissary. Those who qualify for a low-risk designation would be able to earn the ability to move to a halfway house or in-house confinement earlier in the course of their sentence. The bill would also require the bureau to relocate to prisoners to within 500 miles of their families, allowing them to stay connected with family members while incarcerated.

The legislation would also clarify ambiguity in the law on how the federal government calculates good behavior and allow the new formula to apply retroactively to any good behavior that inmates have demonstrated during their sentences. These incentives would give inmates ample reasons to not only enroll in these rehabilitation services, but to actively participate in them. By increasing their willingness to buy into the programs, we would also be increasing the likelihood that these programs have actual effects on the participants.

Not only would the FIRST STEP Act invest in preparing inmates for life post-incarnation, it would also address some important health-related problems found within our prison system. The bill would make much-needed reforms to the compassionate release program by giving inmates who have been formally diagnosed with a terminally-ill condition the right to “appeal” the Bureau of Prison’s denial for release by allowing them to file a motion in court. The bill would also put an end to barbaric mistreatment of pregnant inmates by outlawing the use of shackles during labor and postpartum recovery. It would also increase available phone- and in-person-visitation rights for new mothers. Furthermore, the legislation would guarantee female inmates free access to feminine hygiene products. These reforms are important for both the mental and physical well-being of female inmates.

While there is no doubt the comprehensive criminal justice reform is sorely needed, we can’t lose sight of the progress the FIRST STEP Act makes. Fundamental change is always slow, but this legislation offers real solutions to a growing problem and would bring about tangible, positive results. In this era of congressional dysfunction, it is important to take seriously any good bill that can gain bipartisan support and pass it into law.


Image credit: Brian A Jackson


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