Originally Published by: Omaha World-Herald
Written by: Shon Hopwood & Dawinder S. Sidhu
By every measure, the federal prison system is in crisis. Since 1980, the federal prison population has surged over 600 percent. Spending on federal prisons has ballooned from $330 million to over $7 billion. Federal prisons are overcrowded, with high security institutions operating at 24 percent over capacity.
While the prison population and operating budget are both projected to increase next year, the number of prison staff will be slashed by almost 1,200, only worsening the dangerous environment for guards and the people confined in those facilities.
What do taxpayers get for bankrolling this bloated bureaucracy? The federal prison system spits out prisoners — in 2017 alone, more than 42,000 people in federal prison were released — many of whom will break the law again and return to prison. Most re-offend within just two years of release. We face new crimes and then receive a new bill for our trouble. Repeat.
We must break this cycle. We must move on from the dated mentality that lawbreakers deserve not only stiff sentences, but to rot while serving them. Instead of waiting for a transformative miracle to strike with each person in prison, we must proactively support those coming out of prison and cut the chances that they will reoffend.
States such as Texas and Georgia are taking the lead on a new approach to criminal justice. They are providing an array of support services to prisoners, ranging from substance abuse treatment to job skills development. They are placing prisoners closer to their families and utilizing alternatives to incarceration, such as halfway houses and home confinement.
The empirical returns are encouraging, shattering the preconceived notion that individuals are beyond redemption and that rehabilitation simply does not work. Each of these elements — support services, family bonds and alternative custodial settings — corresponds with reduced recidivism.
Each of these elements also is part of the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation that President Donald Trump has called on Congress to pass. As Trump knows, government programs need to be continually re-examined, and the federal prison system is no different. In May, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed First Step by a 360-to-59 vote. The bill now sits in the Senate awaiting action.
Standing in the way of passage is the mischaracterization — touted by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and others stuck in the 1980s — that First Step is a jailbreak bill that will release thousands of dangerous criminals into the streets, threatening public safety.
But First Step would do no such thing. Just like anyone else, people in prison respond to incentives, so First Step would provide earned time credits for successfully completing rehabilitation programs. Yet a person in prison would not be able to obtain early release unless he or she was determined to be a “minimum or low” risk of reoffending. Even then, approved individuals must still serve the remainder of the sentence on home detention or in a halfway house, under the legislation.
First Step also contains provisions that would reduce certain mandatory minimum sentences, which were unfairly long to begin with. These reform provisions would restore needed discretion to federal judges to impose an appropriate sentence with input from prosecutors and defense counsel. The sentencing provisions thus would bring a measure of proportionality and fairness to a system desperately needing both.
Thousands of police officers and prosecutors, represented by the Fraternal Order of Police and the National District Attorneys Association, back the First Step because creating shorter sentences and meaningful rehabilitation programs would make us all safer.
Ultimately, the choice presented by First Step is clear: Do we want our federal criminal justice system to be governed by evidence-based policies that make us safer or by fear? The Senate should follow the lead of the states, heed the call from the president and pass the First Step Act.
Hopwood, a former Nebraska resident, is an associate law professor at Georgetown University Law Center and author of “Law Man: Memoir of a Jailhouse Lawyer.” Sidhu, an attorney, served as special assistant to the chair and as a Supreme Court fellow at the U.S. Sentencing Commission.