In a time of partisan politics, it’s hard to imagine that any issue could unite Democrats and Republicans.
Yet people such as Kim Kardashian and Michelle Malkin, and groups including the Fraternal Order of Police, the Baltimore Ravens and the Faith and Freedom Coalition all agree on one thing: The need for criminal justice reform and the First Step Act, a key bill working its way through the Senate.
This diverse group of people recognize we have an over-incarceration problem in our country. Our prison population has ballooned to over 2 million individuals and we have over 180,000 people in federal prison, which is more than any one state’s prison population. While the prison incarceration rate is at a 20 year low, the United States still incarcerates a larger share of its population than any other country in the world. Forty-six percent of the total federal prison population, roughly 78,000 people, are in prison for drug offenses.
On average, it costs $80 a day and around $30,000 a year to incarcerate someone. The federal prison population alone costs taxpayers more than $7 billion annually, up from less than $1 billion in 1980. Since taxpayer dollars are limited, we should not be wasting money on keeping individuals who do not pose a threat to society behind bars.
Higher rates of imprisonment don’t lead to lower crime either. Recent studies found that there is not a relationship between states’ rates of drug imprisonment to drug problems, meaning that imprisonment is not effective in combatting drug use.
The First Step Act provides a solution by incentivizing recidivism reduction programs on social learning, communication, family relationship building and substance abuse treatment for minimal and low-risk offenders. For every 30 days of successful participation in programming, a prisoner would earn 10 days of “time credits” that can be cashed out for pre-release custody after various risk assessments.
The bill would not reduce a sentence. Rather, it would allow an eligible prisoner to go to a reentry center or receive home confinement. If the goal of prison is to ensure that prisoners can be positive participants in society after they are released, we need to provide a pathway for inmates to transition into life outside of the walls of a prison cell, so they do not come back.
The amount of support behind the bill is simply unprecedented. Yet, there are still some people who just don’t get it.
Critics seem particularly hung up on time credits, which they continue to falsely claim would let out violent criminals early. But the bill very clearly only applies to non-violent, low-risk offenders. The exemptions are comprehensive, including individuals behind bars who committed any violent crime you can think of. The bill is far from a jailbreak for dangerous criminals.
Texas is a prime example of why we need the First Step Act. The state showed first hand that alternatives to prison, like electronic monitoring and home confinement are more effective at reducing criminality while still holding wrong-doers accountable. Texas saw major changes after the state legislature in 2007 shifted non-violent offenders from incarceration to rehabilitation programs, which ultimately led to better public safety because less prisoners were recidivating.
By adopting the reforms from Texas, the First Step Act would move from a policy of warehousing offenders to a policy of rehabilitation to become productive participants in society. Recently both senators from Texas– Ted Cruz and John Cornyn — announced that they will be cosponsoring the bill.
The bill is spearheaded by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in the Senate and has a bipartisan group of more than 20 co-sponsors. The House version of the bill is sponsored by Congressman Doug Collins (R- Ga.) in the House (H.R.5682) and has cosponsors from both parties. The House overwhelmingly passed the FIRST STEP Act in May under a 360-59 favorable vote but awaits action on the Senate floor.
There’s a reason the bill is so bipartisan. It’s because it’s objectively the right thing to do.
Demri Scott is a policy fellow at the Americans for Tax Reform, the nonprofit group headed by Grover Norquist that advocates for lower taxes and limited government.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.