Famed French author Victor Hugo once wrote, “There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”
Now, after years of successful justice reforms in over 30 states, and a swell of legislative debate in Washington about justice reform at the federal level, the First Step Act has emerged as a tremendous opportunity to take a substantial next step in restoring confidence in our bloated and much-maligned justice system.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the First Step Act last May by an astonishing 360-59, and President Trump has repeatedly stated his support for criminal justice reform and the First Step Act. The lame-duck Senate will likely vote on the First Step Act this week and show the American people that our government still functions.
The United States incarcerates a far higher percentage of our citizens than any nation in the world. In Great Britain, 147 out of every 100,000 citizens are in prison. In Australia, the number is 152 out of every 100,000. In Canada, the figure is 114. But in the United States, we incarcerate a staggering 693 out every 100,000 people.
U.S. jails and prisons resemble a revolving door with almost 7 in 10 inmates rearrested within three years of being released, and 4 in 10 offenders are sentenced to return to prison.
As data shows, the United States criminal justice system is failing in its declared goals of deterring criminal behavior and rehabilitating prisoners. Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, we can agree that our current justice system is not working and that it’s time to embrace a smarter, more effective approach.
The current system takes a massive human toll by undermining the sanctity and dignity of human life and tears families and communities apart. Far too often, it demeans individuals who sit idly in jail for months on end, rather than undergo rehabilitation to enable them to return to society and live productive lives. Worse yet, the current system creates a vicious cycle of incarceration with far too many young children growing up in homes with one or both parents missing. We know these children are much more likely to be incarcerated themselves later in life.
Americans in support of a different approach to criminal justice don’t want wholesale emptying of prisons and jails, but we do want a justice system that ensures a fair process in each case and for the punishment to fit the crime. Truly dangerous sexual and violent criminals should remain behind bars. However, to break the cycle of crime and poverty that ensues as a result of locking up those with issues of substance abuse does not sufficiently treat the underlying problem.
Thankfully, many states have fundamentally changed their approach to justice for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. Texas has led the way, with states like Georgia and South Carolina following, in diverting “low-level offenders” with drug-addiction issues into programs to help get and keep them clean and sober. These states also have reformed their probation and parole systems, refocusing resources on treatment and rehabilitation with the aim of reducing recidivism and making it easier to productively re-enter society.
The results are conclusive. Texas began such reforms just over ten years ago now and has seen its crime rate drop to its lowest level since 1968. Georgia, South Carolina, North Dakota, and Kentucky are implementing similar programs and are seeing similar results. Ex-inmates are leaving local jails, and state prisons, free of alcohol and drug dependence and are better prepared to take care of the families they are returning too. Because of new “back-end” prison programming, including education and job training, released prisoners have the necessary skills to gain and keep steady employment which dramatically reduces the probability of re-offending and increases the likelihood of successful societal re-entry.
The federal justice system can learn from the successes of states like Texas and provide incarcerated individuals a second chance. Reentering prisoners face significant barriers to employment, housing, and education, and without proper education or skills training, these barriers make it far more likely that those with criminal records will re-enter our revolving-door prison system.
The American people deserve a better justice system. A system that provides low-level offenders with a second chance at returning to society as upstanding citizens. A system that rehabilitates citizens and reintegrates them into our communities instead of one that too often produces more and better criminals.
U.S. jails and prisons should be another avenue to make the public safer by helping reunite families and rebuild communities. In this, we have great hope, because as Frederick Douglass once said: “The man who is right is a majority. He who has God and conscience on his side has a majority against the universe.”
Right now we don’t need the whole universe to come alongside; we need the United States Senate. The time has come for the U.S. Senate to line up with the right thinking of the U.S. House of Representatives, President Trump, and over 30 states across the country who all have acknowledged that we must work together toward a justice system that works for all Americans. The First Step Act will do exactly that.
Timothy Head is executive director of the nonprofit Faith & Freedom Coalition in Washington, D.C. Bishop Patrick Wooden is pastor of the Upper Room Church of God In Christ in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.