The problem: A small group of GOP senators are trying to defeat the bill, known as the First Step Act, with the basest of tactics. Instead of permitting a principled debate on the Senate floor, they’re treating the American people to misdirection, delay and fearmongering — all aimed at running out the clock on the legislative session.
Opponents frame the bill as a form of mass jailbreak. It threatens nothing of the kind.
As it is, nearly every inmate will leave prison eventually, with or without the First Step Act. The question is whether they stay out or return behind bars. On that count, the brokenness of the system is plain for all to see.
American authorities spend roughly $80 billion a year on federal, state and local prison systems. Despite this vast expenditure, two-thirds of inmates recidivate.
That’s where the First Step Act comes in. The act empowers the Bureau of Prisons to ensure that inmates leave better than they come in, with the benefits of evidence-based programming behind the walls, incentives to participate in these programs, skills training that will lead to employment and appropriate step-down measures such as pre-release custody.
With the First Step Act, we can help save tomorrow’s victims by helping formerly incarcerated men and women find jobs, become taxpayers, pay victim restitution and child support and reunify with their families and communities.
I should know. Unlike many of the opponents of the bill, I practiced criminal law. I tried cases as a defense lawyer and argued and won before the New Jersey Supreme Court.
I have also been to prison after my addiction led me to make a disastrous decision to drive under the influence. I seriously injured someone and tried to lie my way out of it.
I was sentenced to six years in a New Jersey state prison, where I received alcohol treatment. I am now sober, married and helping others while I atone for my terrible actions.
When I was imprisoned, I witnessed the gaps in the system firsthand. For example, I noticed how none of my fellow inmates asked me for money — but nearly everyone asked me to help them find a job when they got out, since they knew I had been a trial lawyer. I know what the needs are, and the bill addresses them by offering expanded opioid treatment, vocational and work training and faith-based mentorship.
What the bill doesn’t do is shorten prison sentences. Yes, there is a pre-release custody element, but it’s only available to inmates who participate in programming and where the prison warden determines “that the prisoner would not be a danger to society” and “is unlikely to recidivate.”
The bill gives the Department of Justice complete authority over who is arrested, who is prosecuted and who is eligible for pre-release custody within the federal system. We have all heard of “activist judges,” but I have yet to learn of an “activist warden.” Federal wardens aren’t in the business of activism.
Nor does the bill’s moderate sentencing reform amount to a “jailbreak.” Opponents stoke fear by talking about the 2,600 inmates convicted of crack offenses before 2010 who would be eligible for release under the First Step Act.
Yet these inmates can’t be released until they file a motion with the federal courts and notify the US attorneys for their input — and opposition. These inmates need to get lawyers, go through the process and get a court date and decision before their release can be decided.
Similarly, inmates seeking credits for pre-release custody must complete evidence-based rehabilitation programming and be certified by the Bureau of Prisons as low-risk. No prisoners will become eligible until they can satisfy both requirements; a very few who’ve completed existing evidenced-based drug-treatment programs may become eligible fairly quickly if BOP decides they also qualify as low risk.
The country can’t play politics with public safety, and this bill doesn’t do that. To kill the First Step Act, however, would be to miss the opportunity to help willing inmates walk the road to redemption.
John Koufos is the national director of reentry initiatives at Right On Crime and former executive director of the New Jersey Reentry Corp.