The time for prison reform is now. The FIRST STEP Act, which would change lives and protect communities by helping federal prisoners access transformative programming, passed in the House by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 360-59 in late May. Now the bill has gone to the Senate, and senators need to know that voters want prisons to be places of correction and rehabilitation.
“People are created in the image of God, with dignity and the potential to change. Rehabilitative prison reforms reflect the value of both [prisoners] and the people in their communities,” write Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Craig DeRoche, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship®. “A more restorative approach to prison—one that requires incarcerated men and women to earn back the public’s trust by completing transformative programs—can reduce crime and prevent victimization."
For those prisoners who have an opportunity to study and participate in programs designed to prepare them for reentry, the risk for returning to prison after their release is reduced by 43 percent. Unfortunately, many federal prisons lack such adequate programming. With more than 180,000 men and women in federal prison—40,000 of whom will be released this year alone—this shortcoming can have far-reaching, harmful effects on our communities.
“As stewards of justice and taxpayer dollars, federal authorities have a responsibility to adopt the reforms best supported by evidence,” say Collins and DeRoche.
The FIRST STEP Act will greatly increase in-prison educational and vocational programming in the federal prison system. By providing prisoners with more opportunities to deal with substance abuse and mental health issues, receive a basic education, and acquire job-readiness skills, they will have a higher chance of successfully reentering society upon their release. That’s why we must act now.
Bryan Underwood spent six years in a federal prison. He noticed that many of the people around him, without much access to programming to improve their lives, were simply “wasting away.” Bryan says that at best, many prisoners spent their time watching TV or working out. At worst, they get involved with drugs, drinking, and gambling.
Bryan, who once worked as a private contractor with the FBI before his incarceration, enrolled in a few programs that were offered through nonprofit organizations at his correctional facility. However, the demand far exceeds the availability of programming at the federal level.
The FIRST STEP Act will expand prison programs and earned time credit opportunities, develop a Post-Sentencing Risk and Needs Assessment System implemented in all facilities to assign the most effective programming to each individual, and provide incentives for program completion.