Four days after the White House prison reform summit (See “White House Summit Pushes for Action on the “First Step” Act” on christopherzoukis.com for more information), and 10 days after clearing the House Judiciary Committee on a 25-5 vote, the “First Step” Act (H.R. 5628) easily passed the House of Representative on a 360-59 vote. Voting for the measure were 224 Republicans and 134 Democrats; all but two of the “nay” votes came from Democrats.

Introduced by Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), the proposal focuses on ways federal inmates could be better prepared for their eventual release, and so commit fewer further offenses. The Department of Justice (DOJ) would be directed to review its current system for assessing the risk and rehabilitation needs of each federal inmate.

Specifically, DOJ would have to develop an intake system assessing each inmate’s recidivism risk as minimum, low, medium, or high, and evaluating inmates’ potential for violent or serious misconduct. (As much as practicable, the bill calls for inmate housing and program assignments grouping together similarly-assessed inmates.)

DOJ must also determine the type, amount and intensity of anti-recidivism programming recommended for each inmate, and make, periodically review and, if necessary, adjust, those assignments. The First Step Act also requires DOJ research on those programs, plus biennial reviews on their effectiveness, and reports to Congress. The bill would authorize $50 million in each of the next five years for developing and running the new system.

Available incentives for inmates participating in anti-recidivism programs include 10 days “good time” credit for each 30 days, increased family phone and visitation privileges, and transfer to facilities closer to their hometowns. The bill orders the Bureau of Prisons to explore other possible incentives, including higher commissary spending limits, expanded mail access, and transfer to halfway houses, or for minimum-security inmates, home confinement.

The incentives will not apply to programs predating the Act’s passage or an inmate’s sentencing, and inmates sentenced for certain crimes are not eligible for the incentives. Changes in assessments of inmates’ risk can lead to removal or restoration of incentives.

The bill also addresses some issues for the fast-growing numbers of female inmates, including making women’s hygiene products more available and severely reducing shackling inmates during childbirth.

Despite the comfortable margin of passage, the measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where neither committee not floor action has been scheduled for a companion Senate measure (S. 2795), introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

During the House floor debate, many civil rights and prison reform activists insisted a prison reform measure should not be passed separate from sentencing reform proposals. Former Obama attorney-general Eric Holder and several prominent Senate Democrats unsuccessfully urged House members to vote against the more limited prison reform measure, and to insist that Congress take up a broader sentencing reform measure.

Senate Judiciary chairman Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), with Democratic whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) a lead co-sponsor of a broader sentencing reform measure, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 1917), which passed his committee 16-5 in February, took strong exception to Attorney-General Jeff Session’s opposition to that bill. It’s uncertain whether Grassley’s preference for his broader sentencing-centered bill will lead him to stall or even oppose the more limited prison-only reform bill cleared by the House.

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 NewsPrison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).