Don’t take a step back on criminal justice reform

Don’t take a step back on criminal justice reform | The Hill

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For those of us who work with the grassroots, it is no surprise that polls show the American people don’t always trust politicians to solve their problems. Indeed, Congress has received low ratings for decades; a majority hasn’t approved of the job they’ve done since April of 2003

But on occasion, Congress comes to its senses to pass impactful legislation. And those moments of sensibility are often rooted in conservative principles. Take the First Step Act, for example — a criminal justice bill supported by large majorities in the House and Senate and signed into law by then-President Trump in 2018. The bill helped nonviolent prisoners earn shorter sentences through education and work, and it lowered certain mandatory minimum sentences that lacked any public safety benefit. Data shows that the bill is reducing recidivism, which makes our communities safer.  

But as the political season swings into full gear, the law has become the target of criticism from those who believe that a harsh criminal justice system is more effective in reducing crime. Indeed, some have called for repeal of the legislation. This is not only ill-informed, but it is also a short-sighted mistake. Now is not the time to shy away from improving the criminal justice system; instead, we should build upon the First Step Act’s success.  

America incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth. In the United States, the land of the free and the home of the brave, we have over 2 million prisoners — a staggering 629 out of every 100,000 people. Rwanda is a distant second. Yet as a nation, we rank in the bottom third for safety from violent crime. This mismatch between incarceration and safety should concern anyone who cares about the size, scope, and power of government, let alone the costs.  

As conservatives, we know America thrives when families are strong, communities are safe, and our economy is robust. We affirm being “tough on crime” but also want to be smart on crime. Being both means making neighborhoods safer by holding people accountable with swift and certain punishments that fit the crime. But we must also enact policies that help prisoners rehabilitate so they can re-enter society and be law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.  

The First Step Act is a conservative, constructive approach to strengthening public safety while giving those in prison a pathway to earning back the public’s trust. Indeed, we helped craft thelegislation in collaboration with public safety leaders and agencies, victims’ rights organizations, stakeholders in state legislatures, and everyday Americans impacted by our criminal justice system.  

And the legislation has delivered positive results — not the least of which is a far lower recidivism rate for those who benefitted from the bill. Because every instance of re-offending means another criminal case with another victim, recidivism is a key indicator of the performance of our criminal justice system. When measured by recidivism, the benefits of the First Step Act are undeniable.  

The recidivism rate of people released from federal facilities in recent years is 43 percent, meaning nearly half of people leaving federal prison will commit another crime after being released. State-level prisons carry a 37 percent recidivism rate. But since the First Step Act became law in late 2018, over 30,000 federal inmates have gone through First Step programming and earned early release, with only 12.4 percent arrested and imprisoned again. 

What did the First Step Act do to dramatically impact the revolving door in and out of prison? It incentivized prisoners to complete programs proven to cut recidivism and prepare them for life outside of prison. Second, it required inmates to demonstrate they are no longer public safety threats by utilizing an evidence-based risk assessment tool to help determine who might commit a crime again if released. Those who fail to meet the risk assessment requirements cannot take advantage of the legislation’s early release provisions. Finally, it reformed the “three strikes and you’re out” mandatory life sentences for a third drug conviction, a law that disproportionately impacted Black men yet failed to increase public safety. 

The First Step Act has successfully kept its promises. As a result, other Republican-led states have passed similar legislation, proving that conservatives are both tough and smart on crime. 

The First Step Act isn’t the only reform of the justice system that has been successful. Conservatives also delivered smart but tough policies in the passage of the CARES Act in March 2020, near the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act was known primarily for its economic relief designed for individuals and small businesses affected by the shutting down of the economy. But the media has virtually ignored another aspect of the CARES Act, which helped almost 12,000 minimum security federal inmates finish their sentences in home confinement instead of in taxpayer-funded prison cells. Since its implementation, there has been an astonishingly low recidivism rate of only 0.15 percent — just 17 prisoners committed new crimes. 

As conservatives, we want the best for our communities, and part of that includes helping prisoners return home as good spouses, parents, and neighbors while reducing taxpayer costs. For years, Congress has talked about reducing recidivism and restoring lives. But the successes of the First Step Act and the CARES Act underscore the importance of conservative values in shaping effective legislation that can be enacted. 

Instead of trying to score cheap political points, politicians should continue working towards a more effective justice system that cuts crime, makes neighborhoods safer, and offers pathways to rehabilitation. In doing so, conservatives can continue to earn the American people’s trust for years to come.  

Timothy Head is the executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. David Safavian is the general counsel and senior vice president of the American Conservative Union.  



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