The House Judiciary Committee on May 9 approved, by a 25-5 margin, the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act (H.R. 5682), known for short as the “First Step” Act. Sponsored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), the measure is a pared-down revision of the Prison Reform and Corrections Act (H.R. 3566) from the same sponsors.
Despite the lopsided vote in committee, it was not free of contention. The panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), tried unsuccessfully to delay the vote unless the House also took up a sentencing reform bill. To overcome opposition from the White House and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, the First Step bill focuses on post-sentencing improvements, and drops the sentencing reform provisions contained in the Corrections Act.
House leaders plan to bring the First Step Act up for a floor vote quickly, but could face difficulties in the fractious House, where many Democrats insist on having sentencing reform addressed, while some hardliners view the bill’s prison reform steps as too lenient.
The measure’s prospects are even more uncertain in the Senate; in February, the Senate Judiciary Committee cleared S. 1917, its version of the broader original House bill. Sponsored by committee chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Senate minority whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), it passed 15-5, over the opposition of the White House and Sessions, who had similarly fought the bill when he was in the Senate because of its provisions easing federal sentencing guidelines.
The Corrections Act had sought to reduce or eliminate some mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, especially for non-violent, low-level offenders. But after administration opposition became clear, the House panel delayed a vote on the broader measure that had been planned for April. Backers of the narrower bill approved by the House committee argued it was the measure most likely able to clear Congress and be signed into law by President Trump.
The First Step bill aims to improve federal prisons’ efforts to discourage recidivism by providing rehabilitation programs and promoting social re-entry of inmates. It would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to create a system for assessing the recidivism risk for each inmate as part of the intake process, make periodic reassessments, and give all eligible inmates incentives — such as early release to a halfway house – to participate in anti-recidivism programs.
It would also allow prison wardens to work with nonprofits, colleges and private groups to offer anti-recidivism programs. Inmates who participate in and successfully complete those programs could qualify for incentives such as up to 15 days of “good time” credit for every month they’re successfully enrolled; having more time to talk to or visit with family members; serving more of their sentence in home confinement or under community supervision; or transferring to a facility closer to their home. The bill would exclude some inmates from those provisions, notably those convicted of violent offenses or sexual abuse of minors.
Many groups pressing for reform – including the American Civil Liberties Union and civil right organizations – are urging Congress not to pass any criminal reform bill that lacks sentencing reform. But others – among them Families against Mandatory Minimums – voiced support for a measure, like the First Step Act, that would improve prisons.
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. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.