5 Things to Know About FIRST STEP Act, the Prison Reform Bill Backed by Conservative Evangelical Leaders

Some senators are rushing to get passed, before the end of the current Congress in January, a prison reform bill that advocates say could be the most substantial prison reform the United States has seen at the federal level in decades.

The FIRST STEP Act, a bill that primarily creates earned time credit incentives for federal inmates to participate in rehabilitative and vocational training programs that can prepare them for life after prison, has received backing from a number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, conservative evangelical leaders, and even President Donald Trump.

The 103-page legislation passed in a bipartisan fashion through the House earlier this year. But with less than a month left until the end of the 115th Congress and Democrats set to take control of the House in 2019, there appears to be disagreement over whether the bill has enough support from Republicans in the Senate to pass.

An amended Senate version that was released the Friday before Thanksgiving includes mandatory sentencing reform measures and other initiatives that Republican senators with a more hardline “tough on crime” approach do not favor.

Even though the bill is backed by conservative Utah Sen. Mike Lee, some conservative senators like Arkansas’ Tom Cotton have maintained their stiff opposition to the bill on claims that the bill would lead to the release of “thousands” of dangerous and violent criminals in federal prison.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t believe that the bill has enough Republican support in the Senate to pass before the end of the current Congress, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, chair of the Judiciary committee, disagrees.

As much has been written and said about the bill in the last few weeks as the 115th Congress winds down, the following pages include facts everyone should know about the FIRST STEP Act.

1. Creates a new credit for participation in recidivism-reduction programs or other activities facilitating reentry into society
One of the main elements of the bill is to create a new “time credit” system on top of the system in place that awards federal prisoners reduced prison time for good behavior.

The bill would allow inmates to earn time credits by participating in rehabilitative, education and job-training programs that proponents say will better prepare them to have a better chance of staying out of prison once they are released.

Eligible programs are ones that have shown “empirical evidence to reduce recidivism or is based on research indicating that it is likely to be effective in reducing recidivism.”

Inmates would be able to use those credits to get themselves released from prison early to halfway houses or home confinement.

Such programs include family relationships building, classes on moral ethics, cognitive behavioral treatment, substance abuse treatment, vocational training, prison jobs, victim impact classes, and trauma counseling.

“A prisoner shall earn 10 days of time credits for every 30 days of successful participation in evidence-based recidivism reduction programming or productive activities,” the bill states.

Proponents believe that the bill will reduce recidivism in federal prisons and provide a solution for overcrowding because it will help the inmates face the problems they have that likely contributed to them being in prison.

Cotton, a leading critic of the bill, claims that the term “productive activities” is “loosely defined” in the legislation.

“[A]ccording to the Bureau of Prisons, playing softball, watching movies, or doing activities that the prisoners are already doing today will result in new time credits,” he claimed in a recent op-ed.

Lee, a supporter of the bill and one of the leading conservatives on the justice reform issue in the Senate, claimed in his own op-ed that Cotton’s argument “ignores the reality of the federal criminal justice system and the plain text of the bill.”

“The recidivism-reduction programs Cotton is so concerned about are designed by federal prison wardens, not prisoners,” Lee said. “Federal prison wardens simply do not award time credits for watching TV. Furthermore, the bill mandates data analysis on the effectiveness of each recidivism-reduction program. If the program is not proven effective, wardens will not award time for participating in it.”

2. Not all inmates are eligible for time credits
Although the bill would create an earned time credit system for inmates to work toward an early secured release, the bill lists about 50 offenses and convictions that would disqualify inmates from being able to earn the credit.

While the 50 disqualifying offenses listed by the bill include a number of violent crimes and trafficking offenses, it did not list enough crimes to Cotton’s liking.

Cotton claims that under the bill, criminals convicted for drug-related robberies involving assault with dangerous weapons, assaulting police officers with a deadly weapon, assaulting a spouse or child resulting in bodily injury, violent carjacking or heroine and fentanyl trafficking would be eligible for earned time credits.

Although the bill doesn’t specifically list those crimes as disqualifying inmates from being able to earn time credits, the bill does require wardens and federal prison facilities to determine if the remaining inmates who have not been disqualified by the language in the bill are “minimum or low” recidivism risks.

“Time credits earned under this paragraph by prisoners who successfully participate in recidivism reduction programs or productive activities and who have been determined to be at minimum risk or low risk for recidivating pursuant to their last two reassessments shall be applied toward time in pre-release custody,” the bill reads.

According to Lee, those determinations would have to be made through “data-based standards developed by the attorney general and the independent commission,” Lee explained.

“Senator Cotton contends that the bill will allow dangerous criminals to win early release. As explained above, the bill categorically excludes offenders convicted of certain crimes and provides that all other offenders are eligible to earn credits only if they are deemed a minimum or low recidivism risk,” Lee explained. “Cotton dislikes this system because it reflects too much ‘faith that government bureaucrats can judge the state of a felon’s soul’ and is subject to manipulation by a future Democratic president.”

Lee stressed that legislation doesn’t call on “government bureaucrats” to judge the inmates but rather calls on law enforcement officers to make those determinations, something, Lee says, that they do “daily.”

Lee contended that similar risk assessment programs have already been implemented in states like Texas and Georgia.

“[A]nd these states are hardly the post-apocalyptic criminal hellscapes that Cotton predicts such a system would cause,” Lee stated.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Samuel Smith