After years of reforming state criminal justice systems and observing the concrete beneficial results of giving a true second chance to former offenders, this initiative has finally found itself culminating in a movement to bring these reforms to the federal system. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) has tirelessly worked and reworked the text of his legislation, originally the Prison Reform and Redemption Act and now recently reintroduced as the FIRST STEP Act, to shore up Republican as well as Democratic support for the effort.
FreedomWorks has been involved in the ongoing movement surrounding prison reform and criminal justice reform more broadly for over three years, working closely with legislators both in state legislatures and in Congress to advance common-sense reform policies. Over the years, it has become increasingly clear from state reforms that giving former offenders the tools they need to become productive members of society upon their release reduces their likelihood to recidivate, or re-offend and re-enter the prison system. This inherently lowers crime rates, saves taxpayer dollars, and enhances public safety.
The FIRST STEP Act mirrors many of the reforms made at the state level in the last decade, led in large part by red states with Republican-held legislatures and governorships. Texas was the first state to identify the problems that the outlandish war-on-drugs policies were creating for their state, both socially and fiscally.
Between 1990 and 2000, Texas’ prison incarceration rate had nearly tripled, spiking from 280 prisoners per 100,000 people to 750 prisoners per 100,000 people. Such rapid growth not only was unsustainable fiscally, but also unsustainable in its societal effects. In 2003, Texas took its first steps toward reforming its laws and implementing smart-on-crime policies. Since then, Texas has implemented sentencing reforms, prison reforms, juvenile justice reforms, among others that have reduced its incarceration rate down by about 30 percent and allowed the state to close numerous prisons.
Reduced incarceration rates go side by side with reduced crime rates, as those released from prison are given the tools they need to succeed in society and not return to a life of crime upon release. Other traditionally Republican states have proven this concept to be true as well, including Georgia and South Carolina. Since 2011, under Governor Nathan Deal, Georgia has, like Texas, implemented the full gamut of justice reforms, including sentencing reforms, prison reforms, juvenile justice reforms, civil asset forfeiture reforms, and individual reentry initiatives such as ban-the-box as well as parole and probation reforms.
Overall, more than 35 states have cut both crime and imprisonment rates with these common-sense reforms. These changes are due in no small part to the work inside prisons that results in released offenders becoming contributing members of society, not recidivists. Prisons are referred to as “correctional facilities” for a reason, and this reason has been realized through state reforms. Across the states, approximately 95 percent of prisoners will be released from prison at some point.
The question is whether we want them to come out of prison and threaten public safety by committing another crime, creating another victim, and introducing more crime to our streets, or whether we want to improve public safety by incentivizing prisoners to reduce their risk of recidivism and become productive, taxpaying members of society. This is the crux of what the FIRST STEP Act does, and it is long past time that the federal government learn from the states and make its prisons the correctional facilities they are intended to be.
By conducting a risk and needs assessment for every federal prisoner and allowing his or her participation in appropriate evidence-based recidivism reduction programming, offenders who want to stay out of prison in the future would be able to access the skills and tools they will need when they complete their sentence. Those prisoners deemed to be low-risk would be eligible to earn time credits for successful participation in this programming to serve a portion of their sentence in transitional housing, further enhancing the effectiveness of the reformed system.
Additional measures in the legislation, such as language that clarifies the Bureau of Prisons, will aid prisoners in obtaining identification necessary for housing, education, and employment following release in a timely manner. Similarly, formal re-authorization of the widely-supported Second Chance Act will contribute in no small part to the success of these reforms.
The FIRST STEP Act passed out of the House Judiciary Committee at the beginning of May with a strong, bipartisan vote of 25-5, with only one Republican voting against the measure. Prison reform has long been championed by conservatives and earlier this year was explicitly called for by President Trump in his State of the Union address.
“As America regains its strength, this opportunity must be extended to all citizens,” President Trump said. “That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”
Congress’ time to act is now, and it should work swiftly to pass legislation that includes these very reforms supported from administration to administration and across political parties. America is about second chances, and providing the opportunity for success those who wish to take it. The FIRST STEP Act represents this opportunity for thousands of Americans currently in prison. Moreover, millions of Americans all across the country will reap the benefits of saving taxpayer money and creating safer communities.
FreedomWorks will be addressing this and many other issues at FreedomFest, “the world’s largest gathering of free minds,” July 11-14, Paris Resort Las Vegas. To learn more and to purchase tickets, go to www.freedomfest.com or call 1-855-850-3733 ext 202 and use code VOICE100 for $100 off the regular rate.