Since the resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy from the U.S. Supreme Court in late June, most legislation in the high chamber of Congress has been in a holding pattern. Upon filling Kennedy's seat, it will fall upon senators to segue into other important matters whose deliberation is long overdue. Chief among these is criminal justice reform.
Why criminal justice reform? For starters, a grim reality: among the roughly 650,000 people who are released from state and federal prisons annually, about two-thirds will be re-arrested within three years. It’s bad enough when individuals endanger the public and commit crime in the first place, but when they are imprisoned for years—at heavy taxpayer expense—and released, only to commit further wrongdoing a majority of the time, this is even worse.
Correctional facilities are meant to correct behavior, but with such poor outcomes, it is apparent that this is not happening often enough. The idea behind prison reform, therefore, is simple: stop this vicious, revolving door of imprisonment and re-offense, reduce further victimization and give prisoners a better opportunity to atone and take ownership for their reformation.
To advance these goals, the Senate ought to consider the “FIRST STEP” Act, which recently passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming 360-59 vote. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Grassley, R-Iowa, plays in important role in promoting the needed reforms in the bill.
The FIRST STEP Act, among other important elements, establishes a new risk-needs assessment to classify the risk of recidivism among federal prisoners, allowing Bureau of Prisons officials to better match them with appropriate, evidence-based programming on an individualized basis. In addition, this is coupled with $250 million in funding over five years to expand educational and rehabilitation programs, including vocation training and educational supports, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and faith-based initiatives. Various incentives can be used, especially expanded “good time” credits, to promote participation in these programs.
Other pro-social reforms, such as requiring that eligible prisoners be housed within 500 driving-miles of home (when possible), and a prohibition on shackling of pregnant women during childbirth, are included as well.
Research has demonstrated that many of the reforms contained in the FIRST STEP Act can significantly reduce recidivism while saving money (in terms of lower costs to taxpayers and victims). Furthermore, conservative states such as Texas, Georgia, and Kansas have long since enacted “good-time” and other prison reform policies, recognizing a simple truth: people respond to incentives. These states and others that have passed several such iterations of reform have enjoyed lower crime rates and better returns on their public expenditures. The FIRST STEP Act draws on these lessons for the federal system.
Roughly 95 percent of those who enter prison will one day rejoin our communities. Therefore, it behooves us to provide tested opportunities for prisoners to land on their feet once they do. Few better ways exist to accomplish this than by learning practical job skills in prison or receive help for an addiction and then dignifying oneself through productive work upon release. Meanwhile, employers can be more confident that applicants will have prepared themselves for release while taking responsibility for their actions. It’s a win-win.
Some advocacy groups among the left are flexing their “resistance” muscles in opposition of the FIRST STEP Act, saying that because it lacks sentencing reform, it doesn’t go far enough to amount to a meaningful effort. These claims do not match what we’re hearing from inmates’ families. This brand of partisan posturing may make for good electioneering, but it is a poor governing style. Most people simply want safe communities, but also wish to give people a second chance. The FIRST STEP Act will help accomplish both.
Federal prisoners and society itself could benefit right now from sensible—and proven—prison reform policies. Conservatives have taken the lead on this issue for over a decade in the states, and now, it’s time for my former colleagues in the Senate to do the same. Pass the FIRST STEP Act.
DeMint, a Republican, represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate from 2005 to 2013. He is chairman of Washington-based conservative think tank Conservative Partnership Institute.
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