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Podcast: Derek Cohen on ‘the FIRST STEP Act’ and the Texas roots of criminal justice reform

The U.S. House passed prison reform legislation, the FIRST STEP Act, less than a week after a bunch of conservatives gathered to talk about criminal justice reform at the White House.

That might come as a surprise to some, but it’s certainly not surprising to the states that are reaping major benefits from criminal justice reform. Take a look at Texas. The Lone Star State cut crime by more than 30 percent and has saved billions thanks in part to reforms passed in 2007. Director of Right on Crime Derek Cohen sat down with Executive Director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation Kevin Roberts to explain how the FIRST STEP Act aims to bring Texas-sized success to the federal prison system.

In the last decade, lawmakers have started asking the question “What are we doing to make sure that they don’t reoffend, to make sure that they don’t end up back in [prison],” Cohen said. What we know from research is that there are several things that lawmakers can do to promote better outcomes. While the Left argues for special treatment in the form of ban-the-box, it’s the Right that continuously searches for ways to “get the government out of the way,” by equipping inmates with the tools they need to flourish outside of prison. As seen in the FIRST STEP Act, this could mean providing job training programs.

Cohen – Some ‘folks basically are unemployable not by any personal fault but just because they haven’t learned any skills through which they could be employable.
Roberts – So, if I were to summarize from my layman’s perspective, I would say that, the human condition is such that we all make mistakes… And what we’ve been doing is building too many prisons, spending too many government resources, only to continue to criminalize those first-time nonviolent offenders to come out and repeat their offenses.

Exactly.

The FIRST STEP Act takes the backend route of prison reform by ensuring that inmates serve their sentences in a way that is productive. A recent report shows job training is an especially wise use of taxpayer dollars as employers are ready and willing to hire ex-offenders. The bill passed the House with wide bipartisan support, 360-59, and is now waiting to be taken up by the Senate.

Cohen – The proposal is to let people out, as they’re already coming out anyway, but doing so in a more-safe manner.
Roberts – This is one of the great head fakes in public policy, in which, conservatives have taken the lead on criminal justice reform. For those of us who study conservatism it makes perfect sense.  Because we’re motivated by the dignity of the person. What could give a person more dignity than if they’re a first-time, nonviolent offender, and the government is spending as many resources on rehabilitating them, so that they come out and be wonderful citizens, as they do on the justice side of incarcerating them?

That’s why the Texas Public Policy Foundation joined Charles Koch Institute and Florida State University in launching Safe Streets and Second Chances (S3C). The initiative looks at state reentry policies and programs that have helped reduce recidivism. Evaluating and reforming government functions to ensure tax dollars are being spent effectively is a long-held practice of conservatives. The FIRST STEP Act simply seeks to meet this end.

To hear more about what’s next for the FIRST STEP Act and to gain insight on the history of criminal justice reform watch, tune into The Foundation Podcast.

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