On August 9, President Trump sat down with governors and state attorneys general to discuss prison reform and prisoner education. The majority of America’s prison population is held in state-run facilities and given that America has the highest incarceration rates in the world – the meeting was an important step in addressing these issues.
Or was it?
Trump’s bill, the Formerly Incarcerated Re-enter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, aka, the First Step Act, would see $250 million spent over five years for vocational, educational, and rehabilitation programs in the federal prison system. Additionally, inmates that participate in the program may earn credits for early release, or to transition to halfway homes or house arrest.
The benefits of the bill are easy to identify. Prison education programs cut recidivism dramatically and return a healthy $4-$5 for every dollar spent. The First Step Act would go a long way in saving taxpayer dollars and employing offenders with useable job skills upon release – skills that could lead to gainful employment, increased confidence, entrepreneurship, and healthier communities. Additionally, the idea of moving offenders participating in the program to halfway homes or house arrest could provide some much-need ease in the burgeoning, overcrowded prison system.
So what’s the pushback?
Not everyone is happy about the First Step Act. Critics decry that it only addresses federal prisons, leaving out other prison systems that are plagued with the same problems seen at the government institutions. And what about the long and harsh sentences for minor infractions, not to mention mandatory minimum sentencing? And what about the racial issues that see more people of color sent to jail?
Okay, hold on now.
President Trump is a polarizing figure – nobody is arguing that. His supporters appear to be waning, and he has made several blunders that have not endeared him to the masses; but, the man is actively trying to work on prison reform, and while the First Step Act is not going to change the broken prison system radically – it’s a step in the right direction.
It is vitally important to remember that prison education programs of any kind are hugely beneficial to the prisoner, their families, and the communities in which they are released. It’s also important to remember that the American prison system didn’t break overnight, and it’s many problems are not limited to a couple of easy-to-fix factors. The problems with our prisons are rooted in everything from racism to income inequality to corporate greed to that good old school-to-prison-pipeline, to name just a few. One single bill will never be able to tackle all of that efficiently.
Fixing the prison problem is going to take time – decades – and the only way to do it is one step at a time, one reform at a time, one bill at a time. The First Step Act? Well, it’s a pretty good first step, provided more steps follow.
Perhaps some of the pushback is rooted in the growing dislike for the President. That’s understandable. He’s done some very “interesting” things. However, no leader in history has ever managed to get it all right, or entirely wrong. Love him or loathe him, if he’s willing to engage in positive prison reform, that’s a good thing. Now let’s sit back and watch to see if the First Step Act is one of many steps forward. I certainly hope it is.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News.