The U.S. House of Representatives passed a “First Step” bill towards prison reform on May 24, but whether it’s good or bad for the community, depends. The Civil Rights community seems split on the bill’s benefits with the National Urban League supporting the measured and the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union opposing it.
Well the bill is literally a “First Step,” since that’s the bill’s name. It stands for “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act,” and was previously called the Prison Reform and Redemption Act.
Those who oppose the bill say it actually misses the boat, since the bill does nothing to address mandatory minimum sentences, nor addresses issues that impeded progress of the formerly incarcerated.
Those who support the bill say they recognize it doesn’t do everything, but like the name says, the bill is a good first step.
In part, here’s what it would do:
• Put $50 million per year for five years into developing individualized programs to reduce recidivism and provide education, vocational training and mental health counseling to prisoners;
• Allow those prisoners to earn credits to end their sentences early and spend the final portion of their sentence in a halfway house or under home confinement;
• Mandate that prisoners be placed within 500 driving miles of their families;
• Help formerly incarcerated individuals to obtain identification after their release;
• Implement a federal ban on shackling women who are pregnant or have just given birth.
Last week, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-GA., and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-TX, joined Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of IL., Cory Booker of NJ and Kamala Harris of CA in trying to stop the bill by warning colleagues in a letter that the roots of the bill’s recidivism reduction system was flawed, could not be implemented effectively, gave too much discretion to Attorney General Sessions and would lead to prison privatization.
“Moreover,” they wrote, “we believe that prison reform will fail if we do not address the mandatory minimum sentences that have filled our prisons with individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses.”
The bill was sponsored by an unlikely pair: conservative congressman who represents the northeast corner of Georgia, Doug Collins, R-GA, and a Democrat from the Congressional Black Caucus whose district includes Brooklyn and Queens, Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.
Jeffries and Collins say they aren’t giving up on sentencing reform in the future, though – they’re just taking the opportunity that’s available now.
“At the end of the day it will help tens of thousands of incarcerated individuals who are currently living without hope or opportunity. It seems to me that the responsible thing to do is to take a significant and meaningful step in the right direction of prison reform,” Jeffries told reporters this week. He said the bill is “not the end,” and “not even the beginning of the end. It’s simply the end of the beginning on a journey to resolving our mass incarceration epidemic in America.”
But there’s more opposition, too, from Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He has authored the broader Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to overhaul federal sentencing, including some mandatory minimums, and has shown no interest in trimming back his legislation or bringing up the prison reform bill in his committee.
“The notion that Congress can enact meaningful criminal justice reform by focusing solely on the back-end of the process without addressing the underlying disparities in prison sentencing is naïve and unproductive,” he wrote in a Fox News op-ed.
President Donald Trump is supporting the bill.
“This has, a little bit, been defined by the president’s willingness to take this on,” Collins said. “The president sees this as helping people, he sees it helping communities, and he sees it making a difference.”