As its name suggests, the first real steps taken in a long time toward making recidivism a thing of the past happened earlier this year with the passage of the FIRST Step Act. This landmark legislation righted some terrible wrongs within our criminal justice system of the past.
Indeed, some 500 inmates have already secured an early release, based on the provisions put forth in the legislation. That’s 500 lives that have been restored, 500 families that can celebrate with joy, and 500 opportunities that our country has that we didn’t before to rebuild communities all over. But that number is far lower than the number initially forecast by the Justice Department.
There is so much good that can come out of this law, but now, we’re entering the phase of implementation, and there are already significant problems which have arisen. It’s imperative for the long-term success of both the program and the inmates who will contribute again to society that we, as a nation, begin to address these problems. But what are they? And what needs to be done about them?
Money & Appropriations
The legislative branch drafts and passes bills for the executive branch to sign into law and then enact. This process is the cornerstone to our democracy — a system of checks and balances that keeps our nation strong, and safe from authoritarian dictators taking control. But it doesn’t stop there.
Congress, specifically the House of Representatives, also holds the “power of the purse.” This is an old phrase that points out that, in addition to passing laws, they are also responsible for funding them. Many Americans make the assumption that, simply because a law passes, it will be carried out. This, however, is far from the case in many instances, including now with the FIRST Step Act.
One significant provision of the FIRST Step Act was to put together an outside review committee that could make recommendations to the Justice Department to ensure that inmates who are released aren’t simply left high and dry. However, Congress hasn’t appropriated the funds necessary to carry this out. And without those funds, it’s unlikely that the Justice Department alone will be able to move around the funding necessary for successful implementation.
But why is this so important? Isn’t it just important to release the people who have more than paid their debt to society? Well, there are problems with that, too.
Support Is The Greatest Factor
When it comes to recidivism, one thing is clear — the support structure surrounding a released inmate has a lot to do with the likelihood that they will return to prison.
For instance, take a 40 year old man who has been incarcerated for 20 years. That inmate has likely had little experience outside of prison, and certainly not enough experience to allow him to cope with the changes that have elapsed in that time frame. Getting a job today requires fundamentally different skill sets than it did when this individual started his prison sentence. And the fact that the individual committed the crime to begin with can often indicate that the person had little access to opportunity from the start.
Lack of opportunity is the single greatest contributing factor to both an initial arrest and following recidivism. So when you take someone who knows next to nothing outside of how the prison world works, the likelihood that they will turn back to a life of crime is high.
The FIRST Step Act was developed in order to prevent this. A large aspect of the law was written to ensure that released persons had access to job training, both before and after their release. Furthermore, resources for finding housing and work are essential to the successful outcome of an inmate’s release.
The sad reality is that simply releasing a person from prison after years of incarceration without some sort of support group, job training, and a place to live, is all but guaranteeing that they’ll end up right back where they started. This is the world that the FIRST Step Act sought to fix. And yet, even with the legislation in place, we’re headed right back down that very path.
What Can We Do?
It’s essential now that we make sure and keep up our cause. Our values tell us that the best way to stop recidivism is to ensure that those leaving prison have the resources they need to contribute to society.
When we talk about stopping recidivism, what we’re really talking about is building stronger communities in our country. Absent fathers and mothers can do very little for the next generation. There’s no one who really benefits from keeping people in prison beyond what’s reasonable for their crimes. When people are incarcerated, they’re missing out on so many things that contribute to society.
Although many inmates have jobs, the contributions they make in terms of taxes are minuscule, because prison jobs don’t pay like civilian jobs do. They aren’t spending their money in local communities, they aren’t supporting local businesses, and in turn, they aren’t helping to create local jobs. Instead, when incarcerated, they are only serving to make private prison contractors obscenely wealthy — all on the backs of the American taxpayer.
We need to make sure that we’re holding the right people accountable. If we fail to properly implement the FIRST Step Act, we will then be responsible for continuing a system that ultimately harms our nation. So make sure to talk to your friends and family about the importance of this issue.
Together, we can create a world in which released inmates don’t have to turn to crime to support themselves and their families. This will, in turn, build stronger families and stronger communities. We can’t afford to wait.