By George Kevin Jordan, AFRO Staff Writer
In 2019 organizations that supported the recently passed First Step Act, which helps reform the prison system, are calling for proper implementation and transparency, officials said.
“I think the take away from folks supporting and opposing this bill is that it’s well titled – in that it’s the first step,” said Ryan King, director of Research and Policy at the Justice Policy Institute. “I think it’s been a continuous piece of legislation even within the community of people working in criminal justice reform.”
On Dec. 18 after a rare bipartisan push from senators across the aisle the First Step Act was passed.
“Tonight the Senate took an important first step to reform our broken criminal justice system. The First Step Act is backed by a diverse group of supporters – from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Fraternal Order of Police,” said U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md), in a statement. “ It includes crucial reforms to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes, end juvenile solitary confinement, and provide more people with a second chance. While we’ve got much more to do, I was proud to support this bipartisan bill, and I will continue working to implement more reforms in the days ahead.”
The bill – co sponsored by Van Hollen, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D- RI) and Sen. John Cornyn (R – TX), would do several things including:
- Hike earned credit up to 54 days per year per inmate rather than the current standard of 47 days that the Bureau of Prisons has in place.
- Provide over $250 million in educational classes and training to assist with transition for returning citizens.
- Ban the shackling of female inmates when they are pregnant and up to three months after their pregnancy
- Institute home confinement for low risk prisoners
- Provide proper ID to individuals released from prison.
While there has been debate about how substantive the bill is to the entire prison population and system, King pointed out the real time benefits can be had from the legislation.
“These are positive reforms where thousands of people will be impacted by them,” King said. “There are a number of people who have the opportunity to be released immediately. There is no question that that’s a positive.”
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons there are about 180,000 federal inmates in the system now. This number is compared to more than 2.3 million people in the entire prison system in the U.S., according to numbers by the Prison Policy Initiative.
King noted that legislation tends to help push more legislation in the long run.
“You will see these smaller reforms have led to more ambitious reform,” King said. “People who were reluctant later become supporters.”
Some critics are wary of the Risk Assessment part of the bill, which some would say may leave an opportunity for racial and other biases to creep into who is deemed a risk to the public.
“Risk is linked to race and earned time would disadvantage people of color,” King said. “How is the risk decision being made? Those are the points of debate.”
“The reality is this is where people and organizations need to be pushing for transparency making sure they are holding hearings with folks from the Sentencing Commission and the Bureau of Prisons. For me, those are the two agencies we need to be pushing for transparency from.”
Kara Gotsch, director of Strategic Initiatives at the Sentencing Project worked with legislators on the bill. Her organization is not only focused on reduced sentencing but making sure the educational components are actually working and make sense.
“Sentencing reform was a critical piece,” Gotsch said, “The success of the bill will depend on implementation.”
Implementation is key not only because of all the moving parts but because there is no permanent Attorney General in place as of yet of oversee all the processes associated with the bill.
Gotsch added that the system’s current educational program for those incarcerated is lacking.
“It’s a basic common sense issue,” Gotsch said. “Programming isn’t going to materialize unless we reduce the prison populations.”
Officials at the Attorney General’s Office could not be reached for comment.