Originally Published: Lincoln Journal Star
Written by: Robert Milligan & Heather Rice-Minus
President Donald Trump, flanked by law enforcement officials and faith leaders, recently urged lawmakers to pass a criminal justice bill that would reform the federal prison system. “It’s the right thing to do,” said the president.
We couldn’t agree more. The FIRST STEP Act, a bipartisan bill that would enhance public safety, transform lives, and strengthen families, deserves to pass.
Some lawmakers, including Nebraska Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse, are still on the fence about supporting the bill, but they shouldn’t be. If they want men and women incarcerated in federal prisons to come home prepared to be good neighbors, supporting this legislation is not only the right thing to do — it’s the smart thing to do.
The FIRST STEP Act would require the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to make critically needed restorative programming more effective and more widely available. The demand for vocational and rehabilitative programming program options in the federal system far exceeds capacity. For example, the U.S. Justice Department reports some 16,000 prisoners — or almost 9 percent of the federal prison population — are on a waitlist for basic literacy classes.
With the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, thousands more people would participate in drug rehabilitation, job-readiness training and faith-based programs. By sending this legislation to the president’s desk, Congress can help ensure that incarcerated people return home better ready to be the qualified workers and law-abiding citizens our society will need for years to come.
Expanded program offerings can be made possible, in part, by faith-based and community organizations at no cost to taxpayers. For example, Prison Fellowship recently launched its donor-funded Prison Fellowship Academy inside the Nebraska State Penitentiary and the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women. The program is a year-long program that takes men and women through a life-transformation process where they are guided to lead lives of purpose and productivity inside and outside of prison as good citizens.
In other states, the academy has significantly reduced the likelihood of someone violating parole or committing a new crime after they are released. Lower recidivism equates to more efficient criminal justice expenditures and safer communities. Right now, programs of this nature are hard to find in federal prisons; the FIRST STEP Act would increase federal prisoners’ access to these opportunities for transformation.
While some incarcerated men and women, like those voluntarily participating in the academy, are ready to change, others need motivating. The FIRST STEP Act wisely provides incentives for those who complete rehabilitative programming, such as increased phone and visitation privileges or moving to a facility closer to home.
Low-risk prisoners are eligible for the most appealing incentive: the chance to ease their transition into society by earning time in a halfway house or home confinement through good behavior and completion of programs that reduce their risk of re-offense. Compared to almost all state correctional systems, the federal system currently offers woefully few opportunities for such transitions.
Increasing programming and incentives for men and women in federal prison is not about getting soft on crime — it’s about getting smart on rehabilitation. This bill is not rooted in naive sympathy. It’s founded on the notion that if a person is ready to change their path, we should help that person do so. After all, about 95 percent of those who are incarcerated will, at some point, be released back into our neighborhoods.
The Cornhusker State is working to transform lives inside prisons so that its people returning home are prepared to be good neighbors and co-workers. When it comes to the federal system — the largest in the nation — we are hopeful Nebraska’s representatives in the Senate will come down off the fence and embrace this transformative approach by passing the FIRST STEP Act this December.
It’s the right thing to do — right now.
Robert Milligan is a retired Lincoln business executive, former chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and current board member of Prison Fellowship. Heather Rice-Minus is vice president of government affairs at Prison Fellowship.