The rate of incarceration in the United States is one of the highest in the world. Yet the emergence of lawmakers calling for prison reform has swiftly made sweeping changes in several states, and in a relatively short period of time has led the federal government to rethink its stance on prison reform following the swell of the nation’s prison population the 1980s and the tough-on-crime legislation passed under Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
Roughly 2.2 million Americans are in prisons, at an estimated cost of $80 billion a year. American prisoners make up the largest portion of the world’s prison population, with its prisoners making up 20 percent of the global group. While both Republican and Democratic legislators agree that reform is necessary for the nation’s prison system, two competing bills on the matter make the future of reform unclear.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed one of the most substantial prison reform efforts in almost 10 years. The Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed, Safely Transitioning Every Person (FIRST STEP) Act passed with a 360-59 bipartisan vote.
The bill focuses on rehabilitating people who are already in prison by incentivizing them to participate in rehabilitation programs with the possibility of earlier release. It authorizes $50 million annually for five years to develop new programs including educational opportunities, vocational training and mental health counseling. The law would allow nonviolent offenders who earn “good-time credits” to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement.
The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), and has gained the support of President Donald Trump. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) supported the bill alongside Jeffries, a fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“This is not a perfect bill, and I strongly believe that Congress must take action to end the epidemic of mass incarceration that has made the United States the world’s biggest jailer,” Sewell said. “But the FIRST STEP Act begins our work to fix the criminal justice system with bipartisan reforms that will have a real-life impact for families across the country.”
The bill would also require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to place inmates no more than 500 driving miles from home unless it is for a security designation or if bed space limits or programming and health care needs prevent it. It would also extend the number of good-time credits earned each year.
But the bill must next pass through the Senate, where it is likely to be more strongly opposed.
Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Reps. John Lewis (Ga.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) wrote a letter alongside several civil rights groups strongly opposing the bill, charging that it does not go far enough and condemning the legislation as “a step backwards.”
“These fundamental concerns are not simply that the FIRST STEP Act does not ‘go far enough,’ but instead that the recidivism reduction plan that is the core of the bill could actually worsen the situation in our federal prisons by creating discriminatory non-evidence-based policies,” the letter read. “We urge our colleagues in the House to reject this bill and join us in pushing for the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.”
Others who oppose the bill include Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who believes the bill goes too far. A second, more ambitious reform proposal, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, pursues “front-end” reforms aimed to lighten prison overpopulation through sentencing reform. The proposal would reduce mandatory-minimum sentences, restore judges’ discretion regarding sentencing and end the “three strikes” rule.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act also has bipartisan support, co-sponsored by Sens. Durbin and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). In 2016, then senator and present-day Attorney General Jeff Sessions blocked the measure from reaching the floor.