The FIRST STEP Act: What & Why

When talking about incarceration rates in the United States, the conversation will likely come as a surprise. One of the most core American values is individual freedom. It’s referenced heavily in the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and in the writings of all of the Founding Fathers. Liberty is one of the most critical and central concepts that Americans hold dear. Indeed, many learn from elementary school the words of Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

In truth, we live this in our day-to-day lives. We are aware of our rights, and we accept that, when someone makes the choice to commit a crime, they forfeit some freedoms in order to pay back the debt owed to society. This has been a practice of all civilized nations for millennia, and it’s a concept we’re all familiar with.

But, in the 1970s, the US came face-to-face with a new scourge — crack cocaine. According to the media of the time, crack rocks floating around the US were going to be the threat that would bring down the country, and even society itself. By the time the 1980s came around, our politicians decided to start pushing back against this epidemic in our country. The thought, was that a firm hand would solve the issue.

Mandatory Minimums & Unintended Consequences

Without the research that we take for granted today, Congress determined that the solution to the crack cocaine threat was to lock away offenders and throw away the key. It was commonly thought, that this would be the most effective way to protect children from the ravages of addiction and crime, much like a father laying down the law with an unruly teenager.

They decided that there needed to be stricter penalties for these crimes — and penalties that a judge and jury couldn’t circumvent. They determined that if the punishment were extreme enough, it would act as a deterrent. But this isn’t what ended up happening.

In fact, one study by the NIH shows that, although the penalty for crack cocaine was much more severe than the penalty for powdered cocaine (which was more expensive and more difficult to obtain), powdered cocaine dropped off much more quickly. The intended deterrent wasn’t working.

Instead of decreasing the crime rate, it instead exploded. An entire generation of people were locked away for decades — often for first-time and non-violent offenses. Punishment was the order of the day, and all the while, the underlying issues that got them there were left unaddressed, meaning that a prisoner was all but guaranteed to become a recidivist (a prisoner who committed a crime after release — for more, check out our blog on what recidivism is).

Furthermore, the prison population in the US surged to the highest in the world — a shocking 7% higher than the next highest nation. We incarcerate more people per capita than Iran, Russia, and even China — nations synonymous in the US with draconian, overbearing police states.

The FIRST STEP Act to the Rescue

In December of 2018, Congress passed and the President signed the FIRST STEP Act into law, taking the first steps needed to correct a serious injustice in our country. FIRST STEP stands for “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person.” Its goal is very straightforward: to give deserving prisoners the opportunity to get a shortened sentence for positive behavior and job training, and giving judges and juries the power that the Constitution intended to grant them in sentencing.

The body of research clearly demonstrates that the size of the penalty doesn’t act as a deterrent. Crime is more often the result of one’s environment and lack of opportunity. As such, the key to preventing inmates from receding back into the system is to ensure that, before they leave prison, they have the means and the opportunity to earn for themselves. Lack of opportunity nearly guarantees that an inmate will return to prison.

The FIRST STEP Act seeks to change this by incentivizing prisoners to take part in evidence-based training programs which are specifically targeted at increasing opportunity once they are released. Participation in these programs can earn as many as 47 days per year knocked off their sentence. In conjunction with other programs, it ensures that an inmate simultaneously earns a lighter sentence while ensuring that, when released, the inmate will be far more likely to simply become a productive member of society, as opposed to winding up back in the system.

But the law goes further, as well. It also extends to judges when sentencing, and gives them additional ways to circumvent damaging mandatory minimum sentence guidelines in many cases. This ensures that a 19 year old offender without a criminal history won’t be locked away for life for a minor mistake.

Financial & Moral Sense

It’s incredibly expensive to house an inmate. According to the Bureau of Prisons, in fiscal year 2017, it cost $36,299.25 to detain each inmate. These costs are staggering, considering that this is more than half of the median income of the average US household alone. As such, common sense tells us that we should incarcerate only those who need to be removed from society and other offenders can be dealt with in a less extreme manner, while still ensuring that the debt is paid and rehabilitation occurs. If you can accomplish inmate rehabilitation without incurring that much cost, why wouldn’t you?

But it goes deeper, still. One of the biggest correlations for the successful upbringing of children is a stable home. A stable home is incredibly unlikely for a child whose parent is incarcerated. This extends to being a contributing member of society versus dedicating a life to crime, which is the only way for some who have no access to opportunity upon their release.

Prison reform goes far beyond the prisons. Laws like the FIRST STEP Act aren’t just about the prisoners themselves, they’re about the communities those inmates live in when they go home. They’re about families and schools. They’re about making the world a better place in a real, tangible, sense.

The FIRST STEP Act makes financial and moral sense — it’s a win-win for everyone. And that’s why RED fully supports the legislation and the goal to go even further. RED’s sole objective is to reform the criminal justice system in this country so that it works as it should, for the good of building communities, and not of destroying them. From there, anything is possible.

For more on the FIRST STEP Act and the awesome true story of one of the first beneficiaries of this legislation, click here!

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