By Jane Leader Janeczek and Charles Mitchell
Commentators are calling it a “Christmas miracle.” Senate Republicans and Democrats have just cooperated to advance the FIRST STEP ActAmerica’s most significant federal sentencing and prison reform in three decades.
Thousands of incarcerated Americans are grateful for this bipartisan bill, which outlines fairer sentencing and smarter prison spending. As advocates for Pennsylvania’s landmark criminal justice reform in 2012, we can attest the benefits of humane reforms and commend Congress and the president for balancing public safety, fiscal prudence, and compassion.
FIRST STEP, which overwhelmingly passed the House in May, makes America’s federal laws smarter and our communities safer. The National Fraternal Order of Police, whose priority is crime prevention, endorses the bill for this reason, and for its provision to protect prison guards by allowing them to carry firearms in more circumstances.
Key to the reform are “time credits” non-violent offenders can earn for participation in recidivism reduction programs — trimming pointlessly long, expensive prison sentences. Recent amendments include additional measures to ensure violent criminals won’t qualify.
Smarter Sentences, Lower Costs, Better Results
Research shows a shorter prison stay can lower the recidivism rate of offenders deemed low-risk. Likewise, more prison time means a higher recidivism rate for less serious offenses. Given the prison atmosphere breeds crime and a criminal mentality, American justice too often works against itself by defaulting to long sentences.
That’s why FIRST STEP requires the Bureau of Prisons to transfer certain low-risk, low-need inmates from prison to home confinement. Besides reducing our enormous room, board, health, and guard costs, this reform places small-time offenders in a community setting instead of the crime training facility that federal prison too often becomes.
The fact is, most people who commit crimes will be back on the streets someday. The goal of our criminal justice system should be to reduce the likelihood of a repeat offense. Right now, the system we have makes recidivism more likely. It isn’t just expensive; it’s making us less safe. FIRST STEP takes us the right direction—and it’s about time.
While these reforms alone make serious progress, the bill also includes several proportionate sentencing reforms, such as reducing the three-strike drug penalty from life in prison to 25 years. That’s truer justice: sentences should not stop punishing people who commit crimes, but the punishment must fit the crime.
Pennsylvania Leads the Way
The FIRST STEP Act is an exciting new development for federal prison reform, but Pennsylvania is already a great example of the long-term impact smart reforms can have.
In 2012, we helped lead a bipartisan coalition supporting the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which passed unanimously and was signed by then-Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican. Those reforms have helped reduce Pennsylvania’s prison population for four consecutive years — more than double the cumulative population reductions since 1970—without compromising public safety. And as the number of people incarcerated has declined, so have Pennsylvania’s violent and property crime rates.
Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, praised the 2012 initiative and recently signed additional legislation to help former prisoners find work. As advocates for fairness and opportunity for all Pennsylvanians, we strongly endorsed the “clean slate” bill, which seals some criminal records. A second bill ended driver’s license suspension for non-violent, non-driving offenses.
Cooperation across gubernatorial administrations and in the U.S. Senate — both Sen. Bob Casey (D) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R) voted for FIRST STEP — proves that criminal justice reform can bridge the partisan divide.
We hope lawmakers see the bipartisan momentum behind the FIRST STEP Act as an opportunity to advance additional reforms at the state level where most prisoners reside. In Pennsylvania, the second Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI2), which contains multiple bills that expand parole for non-violent offenders and improve sentencing, is a great place to start. If JRI2 bills pass, the overall restructuring will further reduce our prison population and save approximately $48 million over five years.
Seeing Congress and President Trump work together to enact humane criminal justice reforms, while protecting our neighborhoods, gives us hope. America is long overdue for these commonsense corrections reforms, and Pennsylvania has the chance to do even more to improve the lives of its citizens. Let’s not let the opportunity go to waste.
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Jane Leader Janeczek is a business executive and the daughter of former Pennsylvania Governor George Leader. Charles Mitchell is president and CEO for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.