Our criminal justice system is badly broken, and the next few weeks will determine the fate of efforts to fix it.
We should not continue pouring billions of dollars into a system that releases offenders who are more dangerous than when they entered prison, leaves victims’ needs unmet, and causes our communities to live in fear of crime.
Yet, unless the Senate passes the FIRST STEP Act before the end of the year, the terrible status quo will continue.
Here are a few ways the current system fails us:
• The first priority of government is to keep our people safe. Violent, dangerous criminals belong in prison, and the cost of incarcerating them is money well spent. But we are overusing imprisonment. More than half of all people in federal prisons for drug offenses have no violent history, and more than one-quarter have no prior criminal history. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we are locking up a lot of people because we’re just mad at them.
• Roughly half of people released from prison in the United States re-offend. If half of the patients leaving a hospital had to be readmitted soon thereafter, the public would quickly find a new place to be treated. So, we also should find more effective ways to correct the behavior of lawbreakers.
• More than 80 percent of federal prisoners use drugs and/or alcohol. Yet, fewer than 11 percent of them get treated for addiction while incarcerated. Because the prisons do nothing to help them, they are still addicted when they are released.
There is good news, however. The FIRST STEP Act passed the House with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 360-59 on May 22. The legislation will stop warehousing prisoners and refocus prisons on preparing inmates to lead productive and law-abiding lives when released. More than 95 percent of those we imprison will be released at the end of their sentences. What kind of neighbors will they be?
The FIRST STEP Act would focus offenders’ time in prison on preparing them for their release. This important legislation would:
• Promote family visits by placing inmates within 500 driving miles, of their homes. Connections to family are one of the most important factors in making a successful return to society.
• Encourage faith-based and community volunteers to provide programs that the government can’t afford to provide. In addition to saving money, volunteers add an essential ingredient that no government agency can provide – love.
• Allow volunteers who work with inmates inside prison to continue to mentor them when they are in prerelease custody.
• Prohibit the barbaric-but-common practice of shackling pregnant women to their beds during childbirth.
• Allow elderly and terminally ill inmates to return home to be with their families and friends in their final days.
• Allow low-risk inmates who complete re-entry programing to be placed in halfway houses, home confinement, or under community supervision. It only makes sense that prisoners who prove ready and willing to make the most of their second chances should be given the opportunity to get back on their feet.
We believe in redemption, and the FIRST STEP Act will provide offenders with the tools they need to get fresh starts. Our prisons should send inmates home who are better than when they entered, so that they can support their families, pay taxes, and stay out of trouble. The result will be fewer victims and safer neighborhoods.
Thirty-five states have implemented common-sense criminal justice reforms, and the results have been significant reductions in both crime and imprisonment.
Consider tough-on-crime Texas. In 2007, the Lone Star State scrapped plans to build more prisons, and instead expanded drug courts and funneled millions into drug treatment and mental health services. As a result of the reforms, Texas has been able to close eight prisons, and saved more than $3 billion in prison costs. Most importantly, crime has dropped to the lowest level since 1967.
Now it is time the federal government follows the lead of the states. The FIRST STEP Act has the strong support of President Trump, the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys Association, and more than 100 former prosecutors and top law enforcement officials.
This overwhelmingly supported bill faces a final hurdle in the Senate. Only one person can bring this important bill to the floor for a vote – Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Leader McConnell has a tremendous opportunity to show America that Republicans can lead – and become a hero to millions of Americans who are languishing in our broken justice system. You can use this site to contact Leader McConnell and your senators to tell them you want the Senate to pass the FIRST STEP Act before they adjourn.
If we don’t pass the FIRST STEP Act now, it may be years before we have as much support for fixing our badly broken system. You can make the difference.
Newt Gingrich is a former Speaker of the House. Pat Nolan is the director of the Criminal Justice Program Center at the American Conservative Union Foundation.