The First Step Act: Bringing Left and Right Together

Posted: Jul 12, 2018 4:00 PM

WASHINGTON, D.C.- On Thursday, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted Criminal Justice Reform in 2018, a panel discussion moderated by Brent Orrell, a visiting fellow for the AEI and the Vice President of ICF International. 

The panel was comprised of two congressmen, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat representing New York’s 8th congressional district, and Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia’s 9th district.  

“Over criminalization is increasingly viewed as not a republican or a democrat problem but as an American problem,” said Rep. Jeffries. 

Collins and Jeffries are co sponsors of the “First Step Act.” The congressmen discussed not only their legislation but how policymakers can help those who were formerly incarcerated successfully reintegrated into work and society. 

Over 650,000 are released annually from federal and state prisons, however 75 percent of those released will find themselves behind bars again within five years. Over 2.1 million are incarcerated for drug use. The U.S. incorporates more people than any other country, according to stats cited by Rep. Jeffries. 

“Mass incarceration has been with us for almost 50 years, according to Congressman Jeffries. A comprehensive response to fix the broken criminal justice system is needed.  “But, we have to take a meaningful first step,” said Jeffries.  

“It seemed reasonable that if you are going to fix our broken criminal justice system that you would start with those currently incarcerated individuals who are without hope, without opportunity, without a meaningful shot at transforming themselves upon re-entering society,” he added. 

“The ‘First Step Act’ is designed to make sure that individuals would have a shot at transformation, to better themselves, better their communities, and save taxpayer dollars. 

Spending over $80 billion annually on incarceration is a failed government program, and we need to do things in a better way, said Jeffries. 

“That is why I am strongly supporting the effort to fix our broken criminal justice system, to do it by taking a meaningful first step, it will require sustained effort, sustained energy, sustained intensity, to unravel, the over criminalization problem that we have in this country, and I am committed to that effort.”  

“Prison reform is what is bringing Republicans and Democrats, it’s what brought the left and  the right together, progressives and conservatives together, and we should not blow this opportunity to take a step forward together in fixing our criminal justice system, because the people who would suffer the most are those incarcerated individuals, currently without hope and it would be a shame if we were to disappoint them again after having failed them in so many other ways in the past,” he added. 

Rep. Doug Collins clarified that he and Jeffries don’t agree on everything, despite rumors. Rep. Collins said that criminal justice reform, is just a snapshot of issues that he has worked on with Rep. Jeffries. “I believe this is what Congress should look like,” said Rep. Collins. 

It’s a money and morals issue.

“If we were able to take the money that we spend on incarcerating and spend it properly…look, there will always be people that we don’t want in society…but then you take the rest of them, over 90 percent will eventually get out,” said Rep. Collins. We need to do something make sure they don’t come back, emphasized Rep. Collins. “Prison reform is possible."

He emphasized that we need to focus on what we can do to help those incarcerated. We need to focus on what we can do to make sure they don’t come back. However, this starts from the moment they are incarcerated, not from the moment they are released. “At the end of the day this is pretty simple, it’s about people." 

This is about the faces behind the bill. 

“The faces behind the bill are the broken homes, the broken families…people who have honestly made mistakes. Should the be punished? Yes. We are not talking about letting people do what ever they want to do.” said Collins. 

However, the congressman emphasized that once these people are incarcerated, work is being done to enhance priority spending so that “once they are out, they don’t want to come back. Those are the kind of things we are working on. Nobody you meet today is not worth a second chance."

The ‘First Step Act mandates that priority be given to those who are of medium and high risk, ensuring access that those who most need the programs in the bill can access them, overcoming prison culture. The bill also implements a ‘good time credit’ taking 54 days of sentence for every one year of good time served. The legislation allows for partnership with private and faith-based organization to run the reintegration programs in the prison system because of their high success rate in the past. Work is also in progress to locate those incarcerated in prisons closer to their homes, so that they can more easily integrate back into society.

Congress is moving in the right direction. The broad nature of the opioid crisis has led to a greater enlightenment that is both evidence and compassion based. 

Rep. Collins emphasized the heart of the legislation, “What we are trying to do is remind people, ‘You may have made mistakes, you may have been incarcerated, but at the end of the day, there is hope’.” 

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