This commentary, written by our signatory J.C. Watts, originally appeared at The Oklahoman on November 11, 2018.
You would expect that in the face of midterm elections, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation and the ongoing Robert Mueller investigation, the administration and Republican leadership would not be focused on much else. However, I continue to be encouraged that in spite of all the noise that comes out of Washington, they’ve not forgotten those sitting in prison.
For several months there has been legislation pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee that would improve in-prison programming in federal penitentiaries by using evidence and data to match up the right programs and treatment to each offender based upon their risk and needs. The goal of the “First Step Act” is to give those leaving prison the tools and resources needed to successfully re-enter society and most importantly, live a crime-free life. The bill will likely also include long-overdue changes to some of the most unnecessarily harsh sentencing laws in the federal system.
The bill will be introduced in the Senate this week and should have the support of Oklahoma Sens. Jim Inhofe and James Lankford. As long as Democrats who have shown and voiced support of the legislation follow through, the bill should get well above the votes it needs to pass.
For some, President Trump’s and Republicans’ compassion for those in prison may come as a surprise. They are routinely touted as being “tough on crime.” However, as chairman of the Charles Colson Task Force on prison reform, I have talked to Republicans all across the country that have seen the results of evidence-based reforms to current sentencing and incarceration practices that punish those who need to be punished, but also provide a path toward effective rehabilitation to end cycles of recidivism.
Across the country, conservative states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Utah have passed similar reforms to what is included in the First Step Act. Even though these states have reduced their prison populations, crime rates continue to be near decade lows. Equipped with this knowledge, Republican lawmakers at the federal level want to follow suit and pass the most comprehensive reforms to the federal system in our lifetime.
The re-entry provisions in the First Step Act would help transform prisons from being a place where incarcerated individuals acquire the skills of a criminal to a place where they can acquire job skills, education or treatment for addiction. For the 95 percent of prisoners who will at some point be released, this could mean the difference between success on the outside or committing another crime because they cannot support themselves. The bill already resoundingly passed the House 360-59 and it has overwhelming support from the American people. A recent poll of likely voters commissioned by Freedom Partners showed 70 percent of likely voters support the First Step Act.
The need for sentencing reform is exemplified in the story of Alice Johnson, who was supposed to spend the rest of her days in federal prison. The 63-year-old great-grandmother received a life sentence nearly 22 years ago for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. President Trump recognized the incredible efforts she undertook behind bars to rehabilitate herself and be a model inmate even though she was expected to die there. In June, Trump commuted the rest of Johnson’s sentence.
Republicans have a chance to correct thousands of similar errors within the first two years of gaining the House, Senate and White House. Doing so will also show that America remains the land of opportunity and provides second chances for those who have paid their debt to society and want to make a better life for themselves and their families. The time to do so is now.