The need for prison reform in America has never been greater. Prisons are beyond capacity, and a generation of young Americans is aging behind bars due to excessively harsh sentences.
I’ve observed firsthand the impact this legacy of incarceration has had on communities, and I am proud of President Trump for addressing it head-on.
The president just endorsed the bipartisan FIRST STEP Act — the most promising prison reform in decades — which will likely rank among the greatest achievements during his first term in office.
And to get the job done, President Trump has brought together a very diverse coalition of leaders to push for its passage and finally provide hope for communities across the country, while also ensuring there are safeguards to keep violent criminals behind bars where they belong.
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Many states have been grappling with a severe overcrowding problem in their prisons for years, with some spending millions of taxpayer dollars to expand their capacity. The bipartisan reform bill currently wending its way through Congress would go a long way toward addressing the core issues fueling that problem, particularly the propensity for former convicts to be re-arrested after their release.
The FIRST STEP Act also addresses over-incarceration, an injustice that afflicts the black community severely, because blacks are disproportionately represented within the prison population. Harsh mandatory-minimum sentences that were imposed as recently as the Clinton era have kept generations of young, black men incarcerated instead of employed.
The problem has been widely recognized for years, and President Trump is finally doing what both Democrats and Republicans have been promising that whole time: delivering meaningful, responsible prison reform that addresses overcrowding by ending decades-old injustices that affect black families in communities throughout the country.
Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes the enormous benefits of the prison reform legislation. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, for example, blasted the FIRST STEP Act on Twitter recently, arguing that the bill would result in the early release of too many criminals.
In response, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah noted that this concern is completely unfounded. “The First Step Act does not ‘give early release’ to anyone,” Lee tweeted. “Anyone claiming it does, does not understand how the bill works.”
Sen. Lee is 100 percent right. The FIRST STEP Act makes long-overdue corrections to federal sentencing guidelines for drug crimes while allowing those convicted of low-level, non-violent drug crimes to earn “pre-release credits.”
These changes will allow some non-violent prisoners to complete their sentences in non-prison facilities and ensure that prison resources are not diverted away from the most serious offenders. At the same time, the Act enhances sentences for potentially dangerous criminals.
“What the First Step Act does do is encourage rehabilitation by incentivizing inmates to participate in recidivism reduction programs by giving them time credits that can help them qualify for prerelease custody,” Sen. Lee pointed out on Twitter. “Nothing in the First Step Act gives inmates early release.”
The purpose of this bill isn’t merely to reduce prison populations, however. Its core objective is to keep our communities safe by ensuring that prisoners are prepared to become lawful and productive members of society after serving their time.
The purpose of prison is supposed to be rehabilitation — that’s why we don’t just lock every criminal up and throw away the key — but our current approach is clearly failing nationwide.
Statistics show that roughly 77 percent of inmates are re-arrested within five years of being released, and in many cases that’s because former prisoners have difficulty reintegrating into society.
The FIRST STEP Act would tackle that problem head-on by preparing prisoners to re-enter society through meaningful job-training and skill-building programs. The bill also calls for new assessment tools to help law enforcement officials evaluate the risk that prisoners may reoffend, as well as which types of targeted interventions would be the most effective for each inmate.
Finally, the risk evaluation programs will help authorities improve supervision strategies for potentially dangerous criminals.
In short, the federal reform package would end up transforming our prison system by incentivizing good behavior and prioritizing reintegration — something that should have happened years ago.
This rehabilitation-based approach has overwhelmingly popular support, with recent opinion surveys showing that nearly 80 percent of Americans support this type of prison reform.
Harsh punishments might be successful in keeping non-violent offenders in prison, but they clearly haven’t worked as an effective deterrent, as evidenced by the overcrowding problem affecting prisons all over the country.
The state of Texas has already demonstrated that reforms like the ones included in the FIRST STEP Act are incredibly effective at reducing both incarceration rates and overall crime.
Starting in 2005, Texas implemented a series of reforms geared toward reducing its prison population by reducing sentences for certain minor, nonviolent crimes and enhancing both vocational and faith-based support programs for former inmates. Since then, the state has has seen its incarceration rate fall by 20 percent, while the crime rate has decreased by 30 percent.
Understanding and addressing the economic, societal, and human factors that lead people to commit crimes in the first place can help reduce criminal offenses by diminishing the likelihood that former inmates will break the law again after leaving prison. Any effective prison reform policy must directly target the causes of crime — not merely wrestle with containing its effects. Preventing crime, after all, is far more productive and cost-effective than punishing criminals.
The FIRST STEP Act is a comprehensive reform package that will accomplish all of these things and deserves broad-based support throughout Congress.
The need is great and the solution is within our grasp.