Originally Published: Washington Examiner
Written by: Craig DeRoche
Do you feel safe walking down the street at night?
Do you let your kids play in the front yard?
These are the everyday, quality-of-life questions that, no matter how polarized our times become, ought to be able to unite us. And that is why the FIRST STEP Act, the most significant federal criminal justice reform legislation of this decade, has the rare distinction of winning support from the White House and bipartisan majorities in the House and the Senate: It would make America a safer place to live.
Will this common-sense reform make it to the president’s desk in time for the holidays? That’s up to the Senate majority leader, who is hesitant to prioritize time for a Senate vote.
Safety concerns are the main reason for the rising tide of support for criminal justice and prison reform. The “tough on crime” status quo is not merely ineffective, not to mention expensive, it’s dangerous — and a colossal waste of human potential. Ninety-five percent of those who are presently incarcerated will, at some point, be released back into our neighborhoods. And as the Bureau of Prisons’ 49-percent recidivism rate bears witness, our federal corrections system, which has long prioritized punishment over rehabilitation, often serves as a breeding ground for future crimes.
The current model operates under the fallacy that big government investments in keeping people locked up, without accompanying efforts to educate or equip them, will somehow reduce crime.
Red states like Texas and Georgia, which are managing to reduce their incarceration rates and their crime rates at the same time, have shown the nation a better way out of the woods. The first step is to put people convicted of a crime on a path toward making sure they never commit a crime again. With individualized risk assessments, improved in-prison programming, and support for successful reentry, the FIRST STEP Act would follow this strategy. With smarter sentencing and earned- and good-time credits, it would also restrain the system’s growth, save taxpayers’ money, reward responsible behavior, and protect communities.
This bill is not rooted in misguided pity. It is founded on the notion that if someone facing the pain of a prison sentence is motivated to turn his life around, we should afford him the opportunity to do so. If someone actually wants to become a law-abiding, responsible citizen with basic vocational, educational, and life skills, the failure to provide these opportunities would harm society and squander human life and potential.
To oppose the FIRST STEP Act is to double down on the dramatic failure of the existing incarceration model. In no other sphere of American life would conservatives take such an approach. Can you imagine if conservatives opposed reforms to make education or healthcare more effective for citizens and easier on the national budget? What if they voted “no” on reforming those systems, and instead worked to make sure that, with all their failures, those systems remained fully funded and just as unaccountable as ever? Would you still think of them as conservatives then?
Yet, this is exactly what’s happening among some conservatives opposed to the FIRST STEP Act. Thankfully, a majority of legislators and the president have avoided this error. They are supporting safer communities and better accountability in our justice system. They want people to leave crime behind, get jobs, pay taxes, support their families, and be a part of their community, rather than returning to crime.
America is at a crossroads. The federal Bureau of Prisons is our nation’s largest correctional system, and its success or failure affects the safety of every American family. That system must be held accountable for the outcomes it produces with the enormous power it wields.
Government systems can and should change to keep communities safer. A bill is on the table that would bring such changes to pass. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now has it in his power to advance that change. He should seize this opportunity to advance the president’s agenda and should bring this bill to the floor of the Senate for a vote.
The FIRST STEP Act is Congress’ last chance this session to turn away from the failed justice policies of the past, reduce the size and scope of the federal prison system, protect families, and celebrate redemption. Now is the time for the Senate majority leader to push a vote on the FIRST STEP Act.
Craig DeRoche is the senior vice president of advocacy and public relations at Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. He is the former Republican speaker of the Michigan House and a signatory of Right on Crime.