Taking the First Step to Embrace Second Chances
By Sarah Anderson
Although the First Step Act to overhaul the federal criminal justice system passed with flying colors last December, the movement for criminal justice reform in our country is far from finished. There are more than 2.2 million individuals incarcerated in America. Around 150,000 are in custody of the Bureau of Prisons and are therefore directly affected by the First Step Act. The remaining more than 2 million are held across the fifty individual state prison systems.
The positive impact of the First Step Act should not be understated. Despite its continuing implementation, which will hopefully be massively impactful for those currently incarcerated when it is complete, it has spread its influence to states across the country like wildfire. A common argument used to advocate for the First Step Act last year was that dozens and dozens of states had already implemented reforms similar in spirit or in policy to the reforms in the First Step Act.
This is true. But it is also true that there are always more reforms that need to be done in every state.
For good or for bad, state legislatures generally move legislation at a much quicker pace than does Congress. (Except for, of course, when leadership in Congress decide that they want to pass a 2000-plus page trillion-dollar-plus spending bill in a span of about 24 hours — They somehow manage to get that done without a problem.) Fortunately, many have been using their sessions in 2019 to work toward positive change in the criminal justice reform space.
To name a few, Utah enacted “clean slate” legislation similar to that which became law for the first time in Pennsylvania last year, Oklahoma enacted occupational licensing reform, and numerous states have introduced and worked through their own state versions of the First Step Act. What most of these have in common is their goal of offering second chances to those who have made mistakes in the past, are returning to society, and work to have another go at a law-abiding, successful life.
President Trump held an event at the White House in April where he said, “The more I met and spoke with those involved in our criminal justice system, the more clear it became that unfair sentencing rules were contributing to the cycle of poverty and crime like really nothing else before.” And he is right, and he has proven to be a leader on this issue.
Announcing that April would be “Second Chance Month,” President Trump said, “As a result of our incredible economic turnaround… there has never been a better time for those who need a second chance and they get a fresh start.” These words resonated with the hundreds of people at the event, but much more importantly, they resonated across our country.
In a time where we have jobs begging to be filled, many in the past and present fail to look at those in prison who will need those jobs when they return to society. Even worse, they actively discriminate against those people in hiring processes, in licensing processes, as well as in housing and educational opportunities. This is not only a waste of talent. It is also a threat to public safety, a slight to human dignity, and a poor utilization of human capital.
These simple calculations are what many states across the country have realized as well. As President Trump said, the second step in justice reform needs to be about second chances. Whether this looks like further prison and sentencing reform, record sealing and expungement, occupational licensing reform, fair chance hiring practices, probation and parole reform, or any other number of valuable changes in law is up to each government to decide.
One of the greatest successes of the First Step Act has been the changing narrative around incarceration. It is now a positive political issue across the political spectrum. States should take advantage of this and recognize that they can do right by their citizens from all walks of life in implementing some or all of these second chance criminal justice reform.
They can also be leaders for the private sector, encouraging citizens, businesses, schools, and communities to view those with criminal records differently. To view them no differently than themselves, as flawed humans who have made mistakes in their past and will make mistakes in their future.
The more we can embrace this true meaning behind second chances, the more safe we will make our communities, the more effectively we will use our taxpayer dollars, and the more kindly history will view our compassion for others and value of innate human dignity. These are goals we should all should strive toward. Fortunately, we can and we will.
Sarah Anderson (@smayranderson) is a federal affairs manager for FreedomWorks.