Law Enforcement Groups Join Conservative Groups in Support of the FIRST STEP Act
An effort by Congress to provide for prisoner reentry programs and help ex-offenders ease back into society has gained momentum. Within the last week, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which represents more than 330,000 law enforcement officers, and the National District Attorney’s Association (NDAA), which represents 2,500 district attorneys and 40,000 assistant district attorneys, joined numerous conservative groups in supporting the FIRST STEP Act. Last month, Right on Crime, the American Conservative Union, and Faith & Freedom Coalition sent a letter to President Donald Trump stating their support for the FIRST STEP Act. “It is vital to enhancing public safety and (providing an) opportunity for offenders who want to turn their lives around.”
The FOP also recognized the importance of the public safety component of the bill. “(W)e have a bill that will make our streets and neighborhoods safer, our police will be better protected and (the bill will) improve the ability of our criminal system to effectively rehabilitate offenders,” FOP President Chuck Canterbury said. The NDAA noted the bipartisan nature of the FIRST STEP Act. “This legislation is a bipartisan effort to address front-end sentencing reform and back-end prison reform, and our association is appreciative of your efforts to partner with the Nation’s prosecutors on this important matter,” NDAA President Jonathan Blodgett penned in a letter to President Trump.
While the midterm elections showed a divided country, the FIRST STEP Act has provided a demonstrative example of bipartisanship, having passed the House of Representatives by a 360-59 vote. After much discussion between numerous senators on both sides of the political aisle, there have been some provisions that have been tentatively added to the bill. In particular, these provisions will likely aim to address criminal sentencing.
Specifically, these provisions would include eliminating the “924 stacking” which provides a sentencing enhancement ranging between 5 years and life in prison for the possession or use of a firearm in connection with certain federal crimes, including drug trafficking offenses. When former attorney general Jeff Sessions served in the Senate, he believed that this needed to be changed in order to prevent unfairly long sentences. The proposed language would also eliminate “three strikes” laws mandating that three-time offenders receive a life sentence. In addition, it would provide for a justice safety valve, which would permit judges to depart from statutorily prescribed mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenders. Furthermore, the “Fair Sentencing Act” of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine, was not retroactive, meaning that pre-2010 offenders do not have the ability to retroactively seek a reduction in their current sentence. The FIRST STEP Act would apply this provision retroactively to these offenders, making them able to seek a reduction in their length of sentence based on the “Fair Sentencing Act.”
The FIRST STEP Act is modeled after successful criminal justice legislation passed in states such as Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas. For example, Georgia has enacted prison reform and sentencing reform. According to recent crime data, since these laws were enacted Georgia’s violent crime rate has continued to fall. In addition, in 2015 Oklahoma enacted a law based on the ALEC model Justice Safety Valve Act, which provided a mechanism for a judge to depart from a statutorily prescribed mandatory minimum sentence for certain offenders. Furthermore, in 2007 Texas enacted reforms that prioritized drug treatment, mental health, and rehabilitation for certain offenders. Three years later, Texas’ prison population declined by 15,000 inmates and probation recidivism fell by nearly 25%. In addition, by the time Governor Rick Perry had left office in January of 2015, the crime rate declined to its lowest rate since 1968. Ultimately, under Perry’s leadership as governor, Texas shut down three prisons, made Texas safer, and saved taxpayers $2 billion. These laws have worked well at the state level, and it is encouraging to see the federal government seek to replicate these successes.
Currently, more than 2 million Americans are in state and federal prisons. Roughly 96% of those inmates—approximately 650,000 each year—will be released from prison and face the challenge of reintegrating into society. Unfortunately, statistics demonstrate that 68% of inmates are rearrested within three years of being released from prison. Reentry programs better equip individuals released from incarceration to have a greater chance at successful reintegration into society, thereby making for safer communities. The ALEC model Resolution in Support of Reentry Programs outlines the crucial role that reentry programs play in reducing crime rates by reducing recidivism rates. Certainly, criminals should be punished for their crimes; however, they should have the opportunity to be productive members of society after they have served their criminal sentence.