By: AIF Staff
On July 16th at 9:30 am ET, American Idea Foundation President and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan will moderate a conversation about how the private sector and the federal government can work in tandem to reduce recidivism and increase opportunities for those exiting the criminal justice system.
The discussion, which will include leaders from JPMorgan Chase, United Healthcare, and the Heartland Alliance, will focus on how businesses, policymakers, and local leaders can help the over 2 million Americans currently in jail or prison, on probation, and on parole become contributing members of their communities upon reentering society.
To register for the virtual panel on Thursday, July 16th at 9:30 am ET, email RSVP@AmericanIdeaFoundation.com.
Speaker Ryan has long been a proponent of addressing inequities in the criminal justice system and has advocated for legislation that offers a path for incarcerated individuals to successfully restart their lives. As Speaker of the House, Ryan helped lead bipartisan efforts to pass the First Step Act of 2018 and, without question, uniting both the left and the right to modernize elements of our justice system was one of the most consequential actions taken by the 115th Congress.
As Ryan said when President Trump signed the First Step Act into law in December 2018: “Redemption is at the heart of the American Idea, and that’s what this [legislation] is about. Creating a smoother path for those who have been incarcerated to successfully reenter and contribute to society is a worthwhile goal and one we have long been working toward.”
In a polarized political environment, it is rare to see meaningful legislation pass with 358 votes in the House and 87 votes in the Senate, and these vote totals speak to the painstaking efforts involved in developing the First Step Act over a number of years. The legislation, which was backed by Governors, law enforcement groups, former federal prosecutors, and a constellation of advocacy organizations, showed that Congress is still capable of addressing complex issues that have a meaningful impact on the lives of individuals.
It is important to note that this legislation is literally a “first step.” Its passage was just the start of a larger conversation about how to fix serious issues within our criminal justice system and the American Idea Foundation shares President Trump’s commitment to “building on the successes of the First Step Act… with meaningful reforms that reduce crime while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption.”
In advance of Speaker Ryan’s panel discussion about how the First Step Act is being implemented in cooperation with private sector companies, it is important to review some of the main components of the legislation.
In a comprehensive summary of the legislation, the Congressional Research Service explained that: “The First Step Act has “three major components: (1) correctional reform via the establishment of a risk and needs assessment system at the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), (2) sentencing reform via changes to penalties for some federal offenses, and (3) the reauthorization of the Second Chance Act of 2007.” Looking more closely at each of these aspects:
The First Step Act called for the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons to develop a risk-assessment system for prisoners and place them in evidence-based, recidivism reduction programs that are designed to decrease the likelihood of an individual committing another offense upon release. This risk-based assessment system would allow officials throughout the criminal justice system to tailor treatment programs to an individual’s needs and assess risk on a person-by-person basis.
As the Heritage Foundation noted: “The First Step Act brings a similar problem-solving strategy to fighting crime by instructing federal prison officials to objectively assess each federal inmate’s risk of recidivating, and to incentivize them to participate in evidence-based programming to change their behavioral issues, whether that is substance abuse, mental health, anger management problems, or something else.”
Rather than a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach to helping released individuals reacclimate to society, the First Step Act called for the creation of a system that “provides guidance on the type, amount, and intensity of recidivism reduction programming and productive activities to which each prisoner is assigned.” This, in theory, should reduce the rates of recidivism as specialized care and treatment plans are developed for individuals.
The legislation also called for the use of incentives and rewards for incarcerated individuals who are participating in recidivism reduction programs. Some of the rewards for participation in these programs include transferring individuals to a facility closer to the prisoner’s release residence, additional phone and visitation privileges, and a reduction in the length of their incarceration following completion of these recidivism reduction programs. As the Bureau of Prisons explained, a non-violent offender “sentenced to 10 years in prison and who earns the maximum good time credits each year will earn 540 days of credit” toward their release. The First Step Act gives individuals the opportunity to reform themselves and in return, receive reductions in the time served.
Further, in terms of improving the treatment of individuals who are currently incarcerated, the First Step Act made important strides. As the Marshall Project detailed: “The First Step Act calls for greater use of halfway houses and home confinement…. The proposed new law would also expand eligibility for compassionate release of elderly and terminally ill inmates, which would save the government housing and medical costs.” It would prohibit the use of restraints when dealing with pregnant prisoners, mandate de-escalation training for correctional officers, and require the Bureau of Prisons to establish pre-release procedures to help prisoners apply for government identification and benefits prior to being released. These reforms to the corrections system were long overdue and reflect a desire to show individuals compassion and assist them successfully adjust to life following incarceration.
Equally important were the changes that the First Step Act made to federal sentencing laws. As criminal justice reform advocate Van Jones explained: “The bill provides relief to 3,000 people serving harsh and outdated sentences for old crack cocaine charges, which weighed one gram of crack cocaine as equivalent to 100 grams of powder cocaine. It would also eliminate mandatory life sentences for Third Strike drug offenders, end the stacking of 924(c) “guns and drug” sentences and give judges more discretion to sentence below their mandatory minimum.”
The United States Sentencing Commission detailed many of the First Step Act’s reforms to sentencing here.
Second Chance Act Reauthorization:
The First Step Act also reauthorized a host of grant programs that were initially approved as part of the Second Chance Act. Among the programs that were continued, per the report authored by the Congressional Research Service were:
- The Adult and Juvenile State and Local Offender Demonstration Program, which provides funding to states, localities, and tribes to develop re-entry programs, transitional job strategies, and employment promotion opportunities. The First Step Act also requires grantees to submit annual reports to the Department of Justice “demonstrating progress made toward strategic performance outcomes.”
- The Family-Based Substance Abuse Treatment, which provides an “alternative to incarceration for parents who were convicted of non-violent drug offenses and to provide family treatment programs for incarcerated parents of minor children.” The aim of this program is to divert non-violent offenders away from prison and into treatment, while also keeping families together.
- The Careers Training Demonstration Program, which provides federal grant funds for establishing training programs for inmates in correctional facilities. It would also enhance connections between local employers and training programs to hopefully encourage employment once individuals are released.
- The Bureau of Prisons Early Release Pilot Program, which allows elderly or terminally ill, non-violent offenders to serve the remainder of their sentences in home confinement provided certain conditions are met.
The First Step Act also authorized federal funds to be used on a variety of reentry-related research projects that will be undertaken by the National Institute of Justice and will allow policymakers to better understand recidivism, assess various strategies used when people leave correctional facilities, and collect data to better inform future efforts. This emphasis on evidence and the ability for experts to develop more information on why individuals reoffend, what strategies work to keep individuals from reoffending, and what the government can do better will ultimately lead to subsequent improvements of the criminal justice system.
The main goal of the First Step Act was to make common-sense reforms to our justice system and help individuals get back on the path to productivity and redemption. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley summarized the efforts saying: “Over the last several years, we’ve expanded support for comprehensive criminal justice reform by listening to stakeholders and lawmakers to strike a balance that reduces crime and recidivism, and the associated taxpayer burden, while ensuring that dangerous and career criminals face steep consequences for their actions.”
The First Step Act represented meaningful progress, but the federal government should not rest on its laurels. The United States still incarcerates more citizens than any nation on the planet and all too often communities are subjected to senseless acts of violence and illegality, so there is clearly more work to be done.
As reform efforts continue, legislators must work with prisoner advocacy groups, community organizations, law enforcement, and private-sector corporations to ensure that individuals are truly given a chance at reclaiming their lives and livelihoods following their interactions with the criminal justice system. Change will not happen overnight, but with determination and diligence, we can strive to improve our criminal justice system and give those who are deserving a second chance.