FIRST STEP Act is smart legislation — perfect for prison reform
This article by Tim Head, executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition and a signatory to the Right on Crime Statement of Principles, originally appeared in The Hill August 10, 2 018.
Who we spend time with significantly influences how we think and act. This truth is so self-evident, that observing it is seemingly hackneyed. The U.S. House passed the FIRST STEP Act in late May, and it still awaits consideration by the Senate. The Act seeks to create safer neighborhoods by better preparing prisoners to reenter society.
Consider what it is like to be in prison. For an extended period of time, a person is separated from family and loved ones, out of work, and surrounded by people who made life choices that led them to the same place. If iron sharpens iron, is it not foolhardy to place a prisoner back into the community without any meaningful preparation from positive outside resources?
The re-entry process is critical to public safety because it helps ex-offenders reintegrate into our neighborhoods. The criminal justice system should appropriately punish blameworthy behavior, but its purposes must extend beyond this. Public safety is a primary responsibility of government, and criminal justice policies must be tailored to efficiently preserve order and liberty.
Reducing the risk of a prisoner re-offending upon release is one of the most effective ways to ensure public safety. Evidence shows that maintaining close family ties, religious education, and obtaining employment are intrinsically linked to lower recidivism rates. Individuals need support systems to make positive changes in their lives.
This is why the FIRST STEP Act is smart, data driven legislation. The Act is built around personal responsibility, requiring inmates to take action while in prison to improve their prospects for life after release. With unanimous support from the Freedom Caucus, the FIRST STEP Act passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 360-59.
Under the Act, prisoners who successfully complete vocational training, education courses, or faith based programming may earn credit to transfer to alternative facilities while still in pre-release custody.
Confinement such as halfway houses and community supervision are key to the post-release success of offenders because these living arrangements promote a seamless transition back into society, which reduces the probability of re-offending. To ensure that inmates receive the necessary level of supervision, the Act creates an evidence-based risk and needs assessment tool.
Workforce programming establishes skills and communities that offenders can leverage in the real word. While helping offenders meet practical needs is good for families and society, lasting change is about more than a paycheck.
The FIRST STEP Act also prevents discrimination against faith-based programming and volunteering in the federal system, expanding opportunities for mentorship and life-affirming relationships. Moreover, the Act seeks to foster family visitation by instituting a general rule to place prisoners in facilities closer to their homes when safety and eligibility permits.
This year alone, over 42,000 inmates will be released from federal prison. Many will return to their communities with strained relationships and sparse job skills, making for sharply angled upward mobility. To be sure, this does not discharge ex-offenders from moral responsibility. But it does mean they have completed their sentence and earned a second chance at a full, crime-free life.
President Trump recently signaled support for including federal sentencing reform in the FIRST STEP Act. Front-end reforms have been successful at the state level, and there is no reason to believe similar changes in the federal system would not produce similar outcomes. Whether or to what extent sentencing reform will be added the Act remains to be seen.
Regardless, the faith community supports the FIRST STEP Act because we want to see lives transformed, families reunited, and people advance beyond prison to prosperity. Without smart reentry policies, we do more than risk public safety. We impede honest living for offenders who are willing to put forth diligence and effort.