Criminal justice reform activists and faith leaders can smell the end zone as they sit on the “five-yard line” of passing what could be the most comprehensive prison reform bill in decades. But a few staunch “tough-on-crime” conservatives in the Senate stand in their way.
Pushing to get the FIRST STEP Act passed in the final weeks before the end of the current Congress, conservatives, faith leaders and former federal prosecutors gathered at the U.S. Capitol Thursday to issue one last call for conservatives in Congress to back the bipartisan legislation.
The bill would primarily create more opportunities for federal prisoners to earn time credits by participating in recidivism reduction programs to help better prepare them for life after release. The bill would enable evidence-based rehabilitation programs utilized in the states like Prison Fellowship to be utilized in federal prisons.
Among a number of other things, the bill would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug crimes that have led to disproportional sentences for thousands across the country.
Although the bill is backed by strong conservatives like Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Tim Scott of South Carolina, other conservative senators like Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana have maintained their opposition. Another version of the bill passed in the House earlier this year.
“The opposition to this bill is to do nothing,” Bernard Kerik, the former the New York City police commissioner and former head of the New York City Department of Corrections, said at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center. “And I got news for you: prison is a training ground for criminality.”
As a strong majority of prisoners in the U.S. will be released from prison at some point, the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that about 76 percent of released prisoners are re-arrested within five years.
Part of the reason for that, according to Kerick, who spent over three years of his own in federal prison on felony tax and false statement charges, is because federal prisons just simply don’t have any quality recidivism reduction programming available.
He stated that the only real programs available when he was in prison involved things like playing checkers, chess, knitting and even navigating the internet. They were not programs that reduced recidivism or got people jobs after prison, he added.
“They learn how to steal, cheat, lie, manipulate, gamble and fight. They think that a verbal altercation has to end in a beat down or somebody getting cut. That is not what I want back in my community,” Kerick explained. “I want people that learn respect, discipline, and work ethic, and they are going to go back home and get a job and take care of their families and never come back to prison. That is what this bill does. That is the primary thing this bill does and this is the time to do it.”
“The opposition, their solution is to do nothing,” he added. “We have done nothing long enough. It is time for a change.”
James Ackerman, CEO of the evangelical prison ministry Prison Fellowship, said during the press conference that his organization offers the Prison Fellowship Academy at over 80 prisons in 27 states.
The programs, he said, are designed to address the criminogenic thinking and behavior of prisoners with a curriculum that is grounded in a biblical worldview. He said the programs are ”are game changers and put people on a new path to reduce crime.”
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Samuel Smith