The desire for safer communities and lower crime rates knows no ideology. But now, with a serious prison reform measure that would help achieve those goals gaining momentum in Congress, a few loud critics are trying to stand in the way. They're claiming the bill is “soft on crime” and calling it a “jailbreak” bill that will result in more crime.
Such claims just don’t hold up to the evidence.
The Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act (FIRST STEP) would mean both safer communities and it would be a win for taxpayers, too. The bill has already passed the House or Representatives and now awaits action in the Senate.
Far from being a “jailbreak” bill, the legislation takes reforms that are already lowering crime rates in states and applies them at the federal level. Instead of a “get out of jail free card,” the bill incentivizes non-violent, lower-risk federal prisoners to go through programs that are proven to reduce recidivism by awarding them time-served credits upon successful completion.
The bill would expand the availability of programs such as vocational training, education, mental health and drug treatment. It would also implement changes that help ex-offenders successfully reintegrate into their communities once they’re released, like helping them obtain identification and set up a savings account.
Opponents of the bill have been using a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report that shows more than 80 percent of former state inmates released were re-arrested within nine years to claim that these kinds of reforms don’t work. But the high re-arrest rates in the Bureau of Justice Statistics report come from individuals who didn’t have the benefit of the model programs upon which the FIRST STEP Act is based. Their baseline set of inmates come from 2005, and the reforms were first used in Texas in 2007.
Unlike the Bureau of Justice Statistics sample, Texas has dramatically lowered both its crime rates and its prison costs by lowering recidivism rates among those convicts leaving their prisons – exactly what the FIRST STEP Act will do
Because 95 percent of all inmates are serving less than life sentences, all but a handful will be rejoining their communities after completing their sentence. Under the current system, the countless barriers ex-offenders face when they return to society have been helping fuel a cycle of returning to crime that is devastating families and communities. It’s time to try something different.
At the end of the day, the most important question people should ask when evaluating rehabilitation programs is whether our communities are safer. When it comes to Texas, the answer is a resounding yes. In the mid-2000s, the Lone Star State implemented reforms similar to the FIRST STEP Act. By 2016, per capita crime rates dropped by more than one-third, better than the national average.
In addition to creating safer communities, the smart-on-crime, soft-on-taxpayer reforms in Texas saved the state more than $3 billion while also reducing the prison population so drastically the state has closed eight prisons in six years.
Despite the holdouts, the overwhelming majority of conservative voters support the principles upon which the bill is based. According to a recent Justice Action Network poll, nearly 80 percent of conservatives want reforms that focus on rehabilitation. The FIRST STEP Act does exactly that – focuses on rehabilitation – not shrinking sentences. The FIRST STEP Act is not a sentence-reducing bill, it’s a rehabilitation and re-entry bill.
With all the gridlock in Washington, this is a rare opportunity for lawmakers to accomplish something that will bring real reform and save taxpayers money while rebuilding families and keeping our communities safer. For conservatives, that’s a win we can’t afford to pass up.