A prison reform bill that passed the House with a strong bipartisan majority is slowly dying in the Senate. It must be rescued and broadened.
The First Step Act focuses on ways to help federal prisoners prepare for a productive life once they leave prison and to support them in their search for employment. It is a thoughtful attempt to break the destructive cycle that results in more than half of federal prisoners returning to prison within a few years after their first release. Pilot programs have shown that recidivism can be sharply reduced by providing such support.
The lone problem with the First Step Act is that it addresses only the 225,000 inhabitants of federal prisons. That is just 15 percent of the nation’s prison population. The bill doesn’t help the far more numerous inmates transitioning from state prisons and local jails. It should provide states with grants to encourage the establishment of similar prison-to-society assistance programs.
South Carolina has shown that such programs can work. The state’s comprehensive re-entry program, part of a partnership between the Department of Corrections and the Department of Employment and Workforce, began at a Manning facility and is being expanded to other sites. Almost 70 percent of the people who leave prison after taking part in the program find work within a year, which is nearly three times the national average, according to corrections chief Bryan Stirling.
In the long run, reducing the number of repeat offenders is the best way to address the burdensome cost of prisons. Instead, some states facing overcrowded prisons and prison riots are considering sentencing reforms like those enacted last year in Louisiana. Reducing sentences saves money in the short run, but it may prove to be a temporary respite unless the ex-offenders are successfully reintegrated into society. All it takes is one sensational crime to turn voters against what some hard-line legislators call “jailbreak” laws too lenient on prisoners.
Upfront costs of reintegration programs can be a major obstacle to state action. Federal grants could provide a helpful financial bridge to meet the start-up costs.
Meanwhile, the First Step Act is caught in a conflict between senators who seek federal sentencing reforms and those who strongly oppose them.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants to add bipartisan sentencing reforms that narrowly missed Senate passage in 2016 to the House legislation. That is adamantly opposed by Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, who opposed the sentencing reform bill passed by the Louisiana Legislature last year, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, who argues that federal sentences are not tough enough.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, could sideline the entire prison reform bill to avoid a debate pitting Republicans against each other before the midterm elections. That would be a shame.
Sen. Grassley should do the right thing and drop his effort to attach sentencing reforms to the bill and instead focus his committee on broadening it to encourage state action on the prison-to-society transition. Sen. McConnell should then green-light that bill. Such a compromise would lead to meaningful assistance for people trying to put their lives back together and avoid a return trip to prison.