Originally published in The Tennessean
By David Safavian and Dr. Russell Moore
One of the clear goals of this administration has been to roll back government overreach in order to provide greater opportunities for Americans. In February, President Trump explained relief must also extend to men and women in our prisons:
“As America regains its strength…opportunity must be extended to all citizens. That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”
Today, our federal prisons function merely as warehouses. They do little to change people’s hearts, minds, or attitudes: 43 percent of those sent to federal prison are rearrested within three years of being released.
Every new crime committed is another victim, another harm, another court case, and likely another trip to prison.
By focusing on rehabilitation, our justice system can slow the revolving door in and out of prison and make our neighborhoods safer. But today, our federal prison system is failing in that mission.
With the president, a bipartisan duo of congressmen is taking on the challenge.
Georgia Republican Doug Collins is a lawyer by training, a pastor by calling, and the son of a state trooper.
New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries is a former attorney who represents the heart of progressive politics in Brooklyn.
Despite their political differences, they joined forces to write the “First Step Act,” with the White House working alongside.
The First Step Act would reform the federal penal system by adopting approaches proven to reduce instances of re-offending.
The White House backed legislation incentivizes prisoners to take rehabilitation programs and classes shown to cut recidivism. Potential incentives include visitation time, phone privileges, and even time in a halfway house or home confinement for those who pose little risk of reoffending.
The bill also fosters human dignity. It requires BOP to place prisoners at institutions located within 500 driving miles of their homes if there is space available in a suitable prison. We know that helping incarcerated people maintain family ties proves a crucial factor in reducing recidivism.
And, the First Step Act would do more to allow volunteers and mentors – faith-based organizations in particular – into federal prisons. Along with family and employers, they become the support system of ex-offenders once they return home. Further, the bill prohibits the shackling of pregnant women, an all too common practice.
A few hardliners in Congress view these efforts as coddling criminals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Criminals do and will continue to pay a price for their offenses. But continuing to support an ineffective corrections system not only wastes taxpayer dollars, it fails to make us safer.
The cost of incarceration is not insignificant. BOP spends more than $7 billion each year to lock up 200,000 offenders. Once implemented, the First Step Act will cut $128 million in prison spending each year by freeing up bed space and will save taxpayers millions more as recidivism reduces across the country.
More important than money is the impact the First Step Act will have on public safety. Ninety-five percent of those in prison today will eventually go home. That’s the real reason why helping inmates is so important. Once they have paid their debts to society, we want them to return home ready to be good neighbors.
Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the First Step Act by a vote of 360-59. In this poisonous political atmosphere, such an overwhelming margin is near-miraculous, and underscores the broad and bipartisan support for fixing our prisons.
Unfortunately, the bill is now caught up in partisan squabbles in the United States Senate. Some senators don’t want to give the president a legislative victory. Others don’t think the First Step Act goes far enough.
And a few senators don’t understand how preparing inmates to return home can make us all safer. Most Americans want prison reforms that improve public safety, reduce costs, and foster human dignity.
When 43 percent of federal prisoners reoffend after release from prison, something isn’t working. Only a government program can fail 43 percent of the time and continue to operate without accountability or change. President Trump and Congressmen Collins and Jeffries are right to press for reform in the federal prison system, and the First Step Act will do just that.
Dr. Russell Moore is president of Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and David Safavian is general counsel of the American Conservative Union.