As the Senate deliberates justice reform, I reflected on when I first prepared for my Certified Corrections Executive exam with the American Correctional Association. I studied the accepted four main purposes of corrections (i.e., prisons): retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation.
In time, I concluded there was a fifth purpose: restoration.
This framework is a good model to discuss the First Step Act under consideration by our congressional leaders and endorsed by our president, from a corrections perspective. As a career military corrections professional and former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), albeit for a short period, I support the legislation.
First, under our nation’s court systems, we punish offenders with a variety of fines, community service, restrictions, directed education, and yes, confinement to jails and prisons.
It is the just retribution of society on behalf of victims of crime, and on its own behalf to support civil society and uphold the rule of law. Incarceration is a significant punishment, but its significance is not that offenders are punished in prison, they go to prison as punishment (i.e., deprivation of liberty).
The First Step Act seeks to address what is just in our sentencing, if only for nonviolent offenders. The authors recognize that an offender who enters prison without hope, ascribed a sentence in excess to the harm to society and victims, and not given alternative opportunities for restorative justice prior to incarceration, is often resistant to the programs, treatment and education available in prison.
Second, the period of incarceration makes the offender less capable of reoffending or revictimizing during that same period. If retribution is in response to the past, Incapacitation is the present and rests in the courage and skill of our nation’s corrections professionals that run prisons safely and securely. Corrections is a critical component of the broader law enforcement effort to protect our communities, with selfless public servants willing to enter an inherently intimidating and challenging environment. I was honored to serve with our federal correctional force as director, visiting 22 of 122 prisons over eight months. I observed a staff that is truly impressive and well led. We owe the BOP the resources necessary for proper training, equipment, and staffing levels to perform their duties safely and to standard.
Third, and there is much debate on this matter, is that the threat of imprisonment serves as a deterrence to future crime. I do not put much stock in this position, recognizing that much crime occurs under the influence of alcohol or drugs, impacted by mental illness, motivated by the power of emotion or the absence of actual decision making in crimes without premeditation (or faulty decision making in some crimes with pre-meditation). Some argue that prisons with an austere or distressing environment increases its deterrent effect. I am unaware of any research to support this position, and find it bordering on the immoral to create an environment that fails to address the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs of the inmates.
Instead, corrections professionals strive to structure time in prison to be productive. The fourth purpose of a prison, rehabilitation is easy to understand for over 95 percent of the incarcerated population that will be released and move back into our communities, but is also applicable to inmates with life sentences. Corrections professionals, volunteers, and community representatives prepare inmates for the time when they return to society, ideally as law-abiding and productive citizens, filled with right purpose. They also help the inmates to live productive days while incarcerated.
Further, both the American Correctional Association and the Association of State Corrections Administrators endorse the legislation.
Rehabilitation is an honorable and integral calling of the corrections professional. All that the First Step Act prescribes is accepted corrections practice. Sound rehabilitative treatment and programming must receive appropriate funding, which is also addressed, in part, by the legislation.
To the side of rehabilitation, I add restoration (moving deterrence to the balance point of the scales). Corrections agencies should (and most do) reach into their local communities to facilitate the reentry and restoration of their former inmates. The BOP contracts and supervises a large constellation of Residential Reentry Centers (i.e., halfway houses) for this expressed purpose. The First Step Act endorses the increased use of supervised release and home confinement as an incentive for non-violent offenders to participate in rehabilitative programs.
In the future, we must have this same dialogue of restoration for violent offenders who have likely served longer sentences and require more assistance in their reentry efforts. But that is not the discussion for this current legislation.
On the wall of our family living room, we display a text of ancient wisdom that asks, “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” It’s not a bad approach to this discussion of justice reform.
Retribution and incapacitation is just, and rehabilitation and restoration is an expression of mercy. I call on those who focus on the first, at the exclusion of the second, to search your heart for mercy. I call on those that focus on the second, to remember the cost of crime to society and victims, and temper your advocacy in light of these facts.
The First Step Act is a good step toward balancing the punitive and restorative missions of corrections in our federal justice system. As a corrections professional committed to public safety, I support the First Step Act and encourage our congressional leaders to pass the legislation and send it to our president without further amendment.
Mark Inch served under President Trump as the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons from 2017-18.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.