OPINION: The First Step Act — A Step In The Right Direction Of Criminal Justice Reform

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Roger Klein, MD Attorney-Physician
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As the 115th Congress closes out its term, the U.S. Senate still has time to pass the First Step Act. The bill, which is championed by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, contains important reforms that would modernize our criminal justice system.

Grassley has delivered on confirming a record number of judicial nominations and has now followed through on a criminal justice reform bill that has broad, bipartisan support and President Trump’s endorsement. It is up to the Senate to act.

The First Step Act focuses on reducing our high rates of recidivism, or a return to crime, among released federal prisoners. It aims to give inmates a better chance to function as productive citizens after completion of their sentences. The act would also repair some unfair and ill-advised sentencing mandates.

A version of this bipartisan bill has already passed by an overwhelming margin in the House, The First Step Act has been endorsed by more than a third of the Senate, including 17 Republicans and 17 Democrats, and has broad organizational and media support.

The act sets forth an individualized approach to prison reform based on inmate risk. It increases the ability of non-violent offenders to obtain job training, acquire educational skills, and take part in other rehabilitation activities. Participants gain “earned time credits” that would be linked to the potential for earlier supervised release to halfway houses or home confinement.

For example, a prisoner could earn 10 to 15 days of time credit for every 30 days of successful participation in a recidivism-reduction program. The bill also modestly increases the current number of “good-time credits” prisoners are currently awarded for good behavior, providing another incentive for inmates to make a new start while incarcerated.

Other incentives for prisoner involvement include possibilities of increased telephone privileges, enhanced visitation rights, transfer to facilities closer to home, increased commissary spending limits, greater email use, and access to preferred housing units.

Despite its innovations, the act remains tough on crime. Inmates who break the rules would suffer penalties. Violent criminals, sex offenders, and those who committed an extensive list of serious crimes would be ineligible for the program.

The legislation reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some second and third-time drug dealers from 20 years and life imprisonment to 15 and 25 years, still hefty penalties. The act, however, allows judges greater discretion in some cases, which should permit avoidance of the notoriously unjust prison terms seen in situations in which there have been extenuating circumstances.

The First Step Act ameliorates harsh prison conditions, requires placement of inmates closer to families when feasible, and prevents women from being restrained during childbirth other than in exceptional circumstances. It also provides for assessing and expanding capabilities for opioid treatment.

Importantly, the act specifies that recidivism reduction measures must be “evidence-based” and mandates ongoing monitoring, analysis, and research to enable law enforcement agencies, correction officials and other policy-makers to better understand which efforts decrease recidivism and which do not.

This knowledge will allow targeting of specific initiatives to the prisoners on whom they are most likely to be effective.

To monitor progress, the First Step Act calls for regular reviews and submission of reports to Congress, even including estimates of fiscal savings resulting from the legislation. Savings will be reinvested in recidivism reduction programs or used to support law enforcement and crime prevention efforts.

It is worth noting that similar reforms have been successful in effecting significant declines in prison populations, expenditures, and crime rates in Texas and most recently, Louisiana. The First Step Act is needed legislation that forges a better path for convicted criminals to re-enter society but remains tough on crime. The Senate should pass the First Step Act this year.

Roger Klein (@RogerDKlein) is an attorney and physician. He is a former adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice. Klein is a graduate of Yale Law School and completed his post-graduate medical training at Yale School of Medicine.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.