Opinion

OPINION: The Senate Is Passing The First Step Act Today — And It Will Hurt Victims

Collene Campbell Contributor

In a few short hours, Washington elites will be backslapping and toasting to their great accomplishment: ramming through a bill that prioritizes criminals over victims — releasing thousands of hardened criminals back on to our streets and coddling them on the inside.

The rush is understandable; time might reveal the truth. Supporters of the First Step Act claim the bill will rehabilitate and then release only non-violent offenders. In truth, the First Step Act requires our prisons to release killers, rapists, child molesters, and other violent felons onto our streets before their sentences are up—even if they promise to repeat their crimes once released.

The First Step Act’s goal is clearly early release for its own sake, not rehabilitation. Under the bill, every federal prisoner must receive “recidivism programming.” Certain felons receive early release for participating — 10 to 15 days off for every 30 days of recidivism programs. So long as a prisoner does not repeatedly violate prison rules throughout his sentence and shows up for his art classes, crocheting lessons, or “mentoring” sessions with prison friends, he can get out early. The bill’s advocates assert that only “low risk” prisoners will be released. But every prisoner — including killers, rapists, child sex traffickers — must be given a chance to achieve “low risk” status. And once a prisoner attends enough programs to achieve “low risk” status, the government must release him early — even if he walks out of prison vowing to seek vengeance on his rape victim.

Make no mistake, the bill’s get-out-of-jail-early program extends to violent felons, including killers, rapists, and child molesters. If the First Act becomes law, our federal prisons will be compelled to grant early release to prisoners convicted of manslaughter, child rape, attempting to sex traffic a child,  domestic violence, stalking,  attacking a law enforcement officer,  attempting to enslave someone or profiting from slavery, and assault with intent to commit rape.

These are real crimes involving real people.

Consider 10-month old Laurie Fesler of Fort Hood Texas. Her parents intentionally dipped the baby girl in scalding water, leaving 40 percent of her body burned. After 16 agonizing days, Laurie died. Because her parents only intended to torture Laurie, not kill her, they were convicted of manslaughter instead of murder. Left behind was Laurie’s 2 ½ year-old brother, who had also suffered a history of brutality.

Or consider the case of the 13-year-old boy known as “A.V.” Two men — friends of his guardians — took him from his home in Jackson, Mississippi to Shreveport, Louisiana to attend the Independence Bowl. In the middle of the night, the men took turns attacking A.V.: One held him down while the other raped him; then they switched. Over the next year, the two men raped A.V. another 75 to 90 times. They were convicted for taking a child across state lines in order to sexually attack him.
The First Step Act would enable criminals like these to be released early. This is not our definition of criminal justice.

Finally, the bill’s priorities seem terribly wrong. Under the First Step Act, the government must provide every inmate with recidivism programs. This holds regardless of the prisoner’s crime or sentence. Why should taxpayers fund classes on “life skills” or “civic engagement” for murderers on death row, child rapists serving life sentences, or ISIS terrorists?

We can do better. The Senate has an opportunity to fix some of the bill’s flaws by voting for an amendment, introduced by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and John Kennedy. The Cotton-Kennedy amendment requires the federal government to a victim notice when releasing the prisoner who attacked her. It also states that killers and child rapists are not eligible to get out of prison early. This is simple common sense.

An even better answer is for Congress to hit the “pause” button. We need to take the time to get the effort right. I believe that if we all work together — members of Congress, ex-offenders, law enforcement, crime victims, and concerned voters — we can map out a true criminal justice bill, one that focuses on true rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders, while also providing for crime victims and ensuring public safety.

Members of Congress should, at the very least, support the Cotton-Kennedy amendments, and better yet, hit that pause button, oppose the First Step Act, and join us in working toward true justice and true reform.

Collene Campbell is the former mayor of San Juan Capistrano, Calif. and founder of Force 100, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to promoting crime victims’ rights.


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