Last month, congressional lawmakers turned their focus toward federal prison reform.
The bipartisan First Step Act, sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins (R–Georgia) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D–New York), strikingly earned the support of groups across the political spectrum, from the Urban League and Equal Justice Initiative on the left, all the way to FreedomWorks and the Faith and Freedom Coalition on the right.
That any bill would garner a 360-59 House vote of approval in such a charged atmosphere is somewhat surprising, but few could have predicted Senate Democrats and one prominent Republican being set on throwing a monkey wrench into the gears, sabotaging the measure.
First, an important distinction exists between reform on the “front end” and the “back end” of incarceration. While the bill does not address the causes or lengths of incarceration (front), it does a great deal for those already serving (back). By excluding “front end” reforms, the authors are avoiding scrutiny from a White House administration — primarily Attorney General Jeff Sessions — that opposes things like reduced sentences.
The bill seeks to reduce the federal prison population several ways: (1) attempting to boost participation in rehabilitation and vocational programs via “earned time credits,” (2) allowing well-behaved inmates to shave more time off of sentences through an increase in “good time credits,” and (3) increasing funding to already existing rehab and vocational programs, which often have long waitlists.
Included are provisions excluding those convicted of high-level offenses and undocumented illegals from taking advantage of these credits.
Additionally, it would make mental- and substance-abuse treatment more available to inmates; work to keep families together through expanded visits, phone privileges, and teleconferencing; and even allow transfers to prisons closer to home.
Finally, the bill expands the availability of female health products and ends the practice of keeping restraints on pregnant inmates during childbirth.
Senate opposition is emanating from two places.
A letter distributed by five lawmakers, including Democrats Cory Booker (D–New York), Dick Durbin (D–Illinois), and Kamala Harris (D–California), expressed the opposition of the group, largely over the failure of the bill to include “front end” sentencing reform.
In a detailed response, Jeffries urges this group to ditch their all-or-nothing approach, highlighting the long list of positive changes in the bill and castigating the notion that people of color should languish in prison while politicians play their typical games.
Another obstacle for the bill is Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Arkansas), who opposes nearly all criminal-justice reform efforts. According to Politico, Cotton is quietly asking law enforcement agencies to oppose the measure, having successfully convinced the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association to switch sides.
Criminal justice reform advocates are perfectly aware that the federal prison population represents but a fraction of the total – a mere 13 percent. While federal reform would seem like a small advancement, many states are ahead of the game. Indeed, the First Step Act is modeled from previously enacted efforts in states like Texas.
But change takes time, and in our federal system of government, small changes often serve as the example other lawmakers must see to summon the courage to fight for what’s right.