Give the First Step Act a Second Chance
Safford FCI, Arizona. The First Step Act, which is a bill set to reduce draconian sentencing guidelines, making much needed reforms inside the prison industrial complex and increase prison programs, is being stalled out by senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, republican from Kentucky, and Senator Tom Cotton, republican from Arkansas. Even though this bi-partisan bill is endorsed by Trump, McConnell claims there isn't enough time to get the bill through with the other priorities the senate is facing before the end of the year.
As reported in the New York Times, other lawmakers however are working furiously to build support for this compromise legislation that would reverse some of the most outlandish tough-on-crime legislation from the 1980's and 1990's that discriminate heavily on certain drug offenses. This bill seems to be low priority for McConnell, as he is offering to push the legislations back to 2019 to deprive the republicans much needed win especially after the shellacking they received in the 2018 midterm election.
The bill will probably not go through this year, even though it is watered down considerably, to placate the various law enforcement organizations. Let's face it, prison reform has low political priority as inmates can't vote, making them easy targets to ignore, even though the United States has almost as many convicted felons as it does collage graduates. And how many organizations other than FAMM.org speak for the incarcerated or those who have lost their right to vote?
The bill provides for an additional measly 7 days per year off for good time to prisoners for good behavior. This is particularly egregious as the feds hand out 10 year minimum sentences like candy at Halloween. Many prisoners and their loved ones would benefit from the other bills features being implemented retroactively, however in the current fear-based political climate, this is highly unlikely, as it could result in 7,000 prisoners, many of whom have been warehoused for decades, to be released at the same time. Now that Trump has finally canned one of the leading naysayers of the bill, Jeff Sessions, the bill is much more likely to go to the floor for a vote.
Now that the Democrats will be taking control of the House and many people have shown that they are tired of republicans running rough shod over our society by ignoring the human element. They want to reduce the huge swath of American citizens being held for decades behind bars and is a huge drain on society. The mandatory minimum sentencing laws are too strict. Canada, our neighbor to the north, has decriminalized Cannabis nationwide, and there, first time non-violent offenders serve 33% of their sentence. The United States Federal system, abolished parole in 1987, this means that no matter how many programs an inmate puts himself thru, except for RDAP, even with no violations, none of them take off even a single day for good behavior.
There are thousands of federal inmates working in Unicor, the federal prison factories, at slave labor rates of $0.35 to $1.15 per hour. These inmates do not receive any additional good time even thought Unicor's own statistics say, Unicor workers have significantly lower rates of recidivism than the general inmate population. Lawmakers would be wise to include 1 for 1 good time reductions for Unicor workers and other proven programming such as GED, Collage Classes and vocational training that encourage law abiding behavior, as they have done with RDAP. These programs focus on increasing law abiding behavior and reducing recidivism, instead of the punishing mandatory decades long minimum sentencing requirements that do not reduce crime or repeat offending.
The prison system is deeply flawed within the United States. The "freest country in the world", has the highest prison population in both raw numbers and percent of its population. The United States hands out more time for more offenses, than any other country in the world, including China and Russia. The United States has 5% of the worlds population and 25% of the prison population. With republicans like McConnell and Cotton steering the senate towards apathy, it is likely this issue requires the leadership of the Democrats to get this bill passed in 2019.
They could come up with a much better bill that would reduce mandatory minimums, allow federal judges more leniency in sentencing, offer much needed programming credits that assist inmates to successfully re-enter society, reinstates parole, make sentencing reform retroactive, offer RDAP programming to more inmates and repeat offenders, programs that allow low level inmates to be released into the community like a work release program and of course not allowing pregnant female prisoners to be leg shackled. But unfortunately if the senate continues to drag its feet, the whole process would have to start all over again with the new congress.
I encourage you to first share this information with someone you know, then call write or email your senator and ask Senator McConnell to push this important legislation to a vote, as Trump said he would sign it and its about time.
One should not judge one's society by the benefits it gives to its richest members, but by how it treats its lowest members of society. The first Step Act provides for meaningful changes that protect society and gives prisoners a second chance to become productive members of society and be reunited with their loved ones.