WASHINGTON — The U.S. Congress has passed a major criminal-justice reform bill championed by the White House and lauded by Catholic leaders and advocacy groups across the political spectrum.
The First Step Act now proceeds to President Donald Trump for signing into law, after its approval by wide bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate. The final version sent to the president’s desk includes both prison reform and sentencing reform measures that aim to rehabilitate federal prisoners and strengthen public safety.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomed the bill’s imminent signing into law, praising Senate leaders for their hard work in improving the first version passed by the House in June and President Trump for his leadership on the issue.
“The First Step Act contains several much-needed reforms for the federal prison system,” stated Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. He added that many of the legislative provisions “will help foster a more just and merciful criminal-justice system.”
“It’s a real win for the conservative Congress that will have some very good results for a lot of inmates, but also for public safety in general,” said John-Michael Seibler, legal fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
Seibler said the White House’s leadership was “absolutely critical,” noting the First Step Act had been in the works since 2013. Without Jared Kushner’s personal advocacy on this issue, and Trump’s strong endorsement, Seibler said the bill might never have become law because of divisions between the House and Senate on how to deal with criminal-justice reform. “It’s incredible that Trump was able to get it done.”
The legislation effects a small portion of the 2.3 million people in the U.S. behind bars, since just 225,000 people are housed in federal prisons and jails.
But Seibler said federal and state prison policies have a “feedback loop,” and the law could have a downstream effect on state and local levels to reform the prison system so that prisoners can successfully re-enter society without reverting to crime and endangering public safety.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), approximately 650,000 persons leave prison to re-enter society each year. But 68% end up back in prison within three years, a trajectory the DOJ explained is largely influenced by the temptations that come from having “no job, no money and no place to live.”
The First Step Act increases funding for educational and job-training programs, incentivizes prisoner participation in anti-recidivism programs, increases early-release possibilities for qualifying prisoners, reforms sentencing and expands judicial discretion to divert low-level offenders to rehabilitation programs.
Once signed into law, the bill also will ban shackling pregnant women and mothers who have just given birth and require that feminine hygiene products be provided free of charge. It will also require prisoners to be placed within 500 miles of their family members and expand conditions of compassionate release, among other reforms.
A Bipartisan Win
The first version of the First Step Act passed by the House focused on prison reform, concentrating on prison conditions and helping prisoners prepare to successfully re-enter and reintegrate into society. The bill gained momentum in the Senate once changes were made that included sentencing reform, addressing who should be in prison in the first place and for how long.
Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the Brennan Center Justice Program at the New York University School of Law, told the Register the Brennan Center switched its stance from opposing the legislation to supporting it once the sentencing reform measures were included.
“We held fast to that demand — and eventually Congress listened,” he said.
Grawert said the First Step Act should serve as a replicable model, particularly in thinking about the “next steps,” such as incentivizing states to begin safe decarceration efforts.
“It’s proof that a true bipartisan process, with everyone having a seat at the table, can secure a good result,” he said.
Seibler said the First Step Act is an “enormous step forward” that preserves the “tough-on-crime approach,” while adopting the best criminal-justice reforms learned since the 1980s, particularly from conservative states like Texas and Georgia, that may seem “counterintuitive to the tough-on-crime strategy.”
“What we’ve learned from states like Texas and Georgia is that if you don’t do a ‘lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach,’ if you actually do anti-recidivism programs and you address things like mental-health issues, substance-abuse issues, lack of education, lack of job preparedness, you can prepare people to come out and lead law-abiding lives,” he said. “And that’s what the First Step Act proposes to do.”
Further steps in criminal-justice reform, Seibler indicated, will depend on an alliance of faith leaders and their organizations, private employers and the Bureau of Prisons, to implement the programs well and make sure they achieve real results.
“The First Step Act is a small step in the right direction — but an important one,” said Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a moral theologian and president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, which maintains a branch at the state’s Lansing Correctional Facility.
He praised the legislation’s encouragement for educational and vocational training and linking the money to “proven programs that work, that help people not return to prison.”
Msgr. Swetland said education makes a huge difference on recidivism rates, because it opens people’s horizons to show them they can do academic work, learn new skills and have much greater potential than a life of crime.
The Catholic college has provided college courses to 402 incarcerated persons and handed out 20 associate degrees to ex-prisoners. Donnelly’s statistics show the college’s recidivism rate for incarcerated persons taking their courses is approximately 2%.
Msgr. Swetland said Catholics must “see Christ present in the imprisoned,” pointing out that Jesus Christ himself in Matthew 25 made clear that one’s eternal destiny was at stake.
Catholics should be dedicated to making sure prisoners have education and the formation they need for life outside the prison walls. He added that a parish with a prison in its parish territory should make sure prisoners have access to the sacraments, catechism classes and educational and formation programs that will help them fulfill the vocation God gave them.
“They are our brothers and sisters in Christ; they are part of our community,” he said, “and Christ is particularly, in a mysterious way, present in the imprisoned, as he is present in the poor and marginalized.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.