President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan are leading the push to enact the bipartisan FIRST STEP Act, which supporters say will do much more to help prepare convicts to benefit society upon re-entry and address sentencing guidelines for some non-violent offenders.
The House has already passed the bill and a strong majority of senators are expected to support it if it comes to the floor in this lame duck session. Senators still have to address overall spending, a farm bill, and many nominations in those remaining days. But conservative supporters warn that if this doesn’t happen in the next two weeks, it may not happen for years since Democrats are poised to take control of the House in January.
Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation says the bill really just takes successes from the state level to the federal level.
“It really builds on the success in many states – especially conservative states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina – where we’ve basically shown it’s possible to both reduce the prison population and increase public safety,” said Levin.
The sentencing changes are getting the most headlines, especially for non-violent drug offenders. Levin says no one is going easy on those offenders, but there is an effort to make productive citizens out of them.
“There are people now, for a drug offense, ending up with life in prison. This (bill) reduces that mandatory minimum to 25 years. I’d say that’s still pretty tough, but it is moving in the direction of saying, ‘We have to lock up people we’re afraid of, not those we’re mad at,” said Levin.
Critics of the bill, like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton see provision like inmates being able to earn credits and transition to halfway houses ahead of schedule as likely to put the public in greater danger.
Levin says the credit system does not even apply to violent offenders and some non-violent criminals. He also says the system does not reduce the sentence but does provide an avenue for those prisoners to undergo a more gradual transition back into society.
Listen here for the full podcast, as Levin details the many different programs the bill would facilitate to address why different inmates committed their crimes and to prepare them for productive lives instead of just “warehousing” them and throwing them back on the streets.