By James Wright, Special to the

On May 22, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill, “The Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed, Safely Transitioning Every Person Act” (FIRST STEP) by a bipartisan vote, 360-59. The bill was co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a member of the CBC, and Doug Collins (R-Ga.).

“The bill will transform lives by providing access to the mental health counseling, education and vocational services, and substance abuse treatment needed to help incarcerated individuals get back on their feet and become productive members of society,” he said.

Hakeem Jeffries’s (D-NY) bill would provide mental health care, among others, to prisoners and returning citizens. (Courtesy Photo)

Jeffries said the FIRST STEP Act “is simply the end of the beginning on a journey undertaken to eradicate our mass incarceration epidemic in America.”

President Trump supports the bill.

Highlights of the bill include provisions that an inmate cannot be incarcerated more than 500 miles from their home, an identification card has to be provided upon release, release conditions relaxed, changing compassion release based on age from 65 to 60 and from 75 percent of sentence served to 66 percent done, more resources put into inmates who have significant mental and emotional challenges and increasing the number of good time credits served.

Jeffries had the support of the majority of the CBC including its chairman, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), but some of its House members such as Reps. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) voted against the bill saying it did nothing to reduce mandatory minimum sentences.

U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), also CBC members, oppose the bill on the grounds that it doesn’t address sentencing reform.

Christopher Hawthorne, an advisory neighborhood commissioner representing district 8E03 in Ward 8, represents a number of returning citizens. Hawthorne told the AFRO that the bill is only good if it benefits the returning citizens.

“Laws are often the barriers for returning citizens,” he said. “They aspire to be in the working-class but the law makes it difficult for them to get a driver’s license, get caught up on child support, and many of their job skills have fallen into relapse. The FIRST STEP Act sounds ok but it is not enough.”

Eric Weaver, the chairman of the National Association of Returning Citizens, told the AFRO that some provisions of THE FIRST STEP Act are good, such as the having inmates 500 miles or less than away from their homes, but said other institutions may be in the way of returning citizens.

“The prison population is definitely aging and the U.S. Parole Commission, in the case of D.C., has to change its ways,” Weaver said. “Bringing down the age requirement for consideration for parole from 65 to 60 is great but the parole board might not approve. In the job market, there is a world of difference between a 40-year-old coming home and a 60-year-old coming back to his family.”

The Senate had not given any indication when the bill will be taken up at AFRO press time.