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Republican senators need to rise up and vote for First Step Act

December 3, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In a rarely seen bipartisan effort, our nation is about to take the First Step toward much-needed federal prison reform.

But this historic and long overdue effort to reduce crime could be thwarted by a few well-meaning Republican senators.

It seems a few conservative champions haven’t actually read the language of the First Step Act, and because their colleagues across the aisle enthusiastically support it, these Republicans have the wrong impression that it includes sentence reductions for violent criminals.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The First Step Act is based on successful prison reform practices that were instituted at the state level in Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma, among others. All have seen reductions in crime and billions of dollars of savings to state taxpayers. Key components include programs to help make motivated inmates job ready upon release.

The legislation also would do away with the cruel and dangerous practices of shackling pregnant women in later months of pregnancy and during delivery. (Yes, women in federal prisons are chained to tables while giving birth.)

Hopefully, prayerfully, these Republican senators do not wish to continue to shackle women while they deliver their babies. I haven’t actually heard them address that provision. But I have heard some of them oppose efforts in the bill to rehabilitate inmates whose lives and souls are slaves to drug addiction.

It seems that the confusion of these few good senators is with the “earned time credits” provisions for nonviolent drug offenders. Such credits have worked well at the state level, giving inmates a second chance by helping them while incarcerated to overcome their addictions and be ready to secure meaningful employment upon release. Isn’t that what we all want?

Earned time credits encourage prisoners to undergo treatment for their crippling drug addictions in exchange for a change of venue for portions of their incarcerations.

As Ken Cuccinelli, conservative stalwart and former Virginia attorney general explains: “An inmate who qualifies for earned time credits simply gets moved to a lower security environment (example, a halfway house) for the duration of the credits earned. Such an inmate is not released a single day earlier because of earned time credits under this bill. All inmates desire to live in less secure and therefore more ‘normal’ circumstances. That’s what they get with earned time credits.”

It’s important to note that eligibility is determined on an individual basis, and violent offenders are automatically excluded.

The First Step Act would not make model citizens of all inmates, and it does not promise to. Neither would it release violent criminals to the streets or make our justice system soft on crime. It would free up prison cells to house more violent criminals, while giving those who suffer from drug addiction a chance to prove that they are serious about rehabilitation.

The First Step Act also would help keep families of inmates together by ensuring that offenders are incarcerated, where possible, within 500 miles of their homes. Strong family support is critical in all of our lives.

Inmates returning to society after years behind bars often find themselves alone. It’s time to face the fact that when we incarcerate people huge distances from their homes, it becomes impossible for their loved ones to visit them regularly. As the years of imprisonment go by, many inmates lose contact with those they love. Family bonds are eroded with time, spouses often move on and children do not know their parents.

The reality is that 95 percent of all inmates will serve their time and one day will be released from prison. Currently, 70 percent of them will end up back behind bars within five years.

The colossal and continuing failure of our prison system should not be acceptable to any American. We know what works from observing years of success at the state level, and to not apply these proven practices to the federal prisons is just plain immoral.

The House of Representatives and the White House are ready to make our federal prison system more effective. It’s now up to the Senate to act. The only question is: will a few good senators stand in the way?

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at rebecca@rebeccahagelin.com.

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