Who is President Trump's nominee for attorney general, and how will the FIRST STEP Act fare under his leadership?
William Barr, President Trump's nominee for attorney general, came before the Senate for confirmation this week. Barr, once an architect of policies that helped give America the world's highest incarceration rate, has pledged to implement the FIRST STEP Act, but with Trump's signature barely dry on the bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation, the nomination of Barr worries many reform advocates.
As attorney general to President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, Barr made the case for expanded incarceration, severer sentencing, and a prison construction campaign as the means to combat violent crime, which was then at its peak. At the time, many law enforcement officials and leaders on both sides of the aisle agreed.
But in the last quarter century, we have all learned the terrible costs of over-incarceration. We've also learned that there are values-based, data-driven, and cost-effective ways to keep Americans safer. If he is confirmed, Barr has an opportunity to combine his dedication to public safety with these hard-won insights by implementing the FIRST STEP Act fully and expeditiously. The appointment of a new Bureau of Prisons director who embraces this commitment will be critical to successful implementation.
A NEW ERA FOR CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM
The FIRST STEP Act passed before Christmas with overwhelming support in both chambers of Congress. It was the most significant, restorative federal prison reform effort since Barr's last stint as attorney general. The bill's most critical components were not pioneered at the federal level, but rather in the states, including conservative strongholds where support for the current administration runs the deepest.
For example, Texas has used a variety of criminal justice reforms, including diversionary drug courts and parole reform, despite its lock-'em-up reputation. In the process, it has reduced its behind-bars head count enough to shutter several prisons.
Thanks to its reforms, Texas shrank its prison population 10 percent between 2008 and 2013, more than twice the average national reduction, while simultaneously cutting its crime rate. And it wasn't just in Texas; according to the Pew Center on the States, the 10 states that cut prison population the most had an average 14 percent reduction in crime rates.
This data upends the traditional tough-on-crime narrative, which posited that lengthy sentences in harsh conditions would stop crime in its tracks. One might think that "worse" prisons are more effective deterrents, but the opposite has turned out to be true.
When prisons are overcrowded and violent, when prisoners lack access to educational or rehabilitative programs, and when sentences are unduly long, the justice system becomes a revolving door and a breeding ground for crime.
THE COST OF MASS INCARCERATION
Despite the federal prison system's $8 billion annual budget, many federal corrections facilities are overcrowded and provide insufficient programming. The result is a 49 percent recidivism rate. That means that half of the people the Bureau of Prisons releases go back behind bars for violating parole or committing new crimes. That's a waste of taxpayer dollars and a systemic failure to protect Americans. Implementation of the FIRST STEP Act, which will promote a more restorative culture in federal prisons, gearing them toward rehabilitation instead of prisoner warehousing, will help the federal system join the ranks of more successful state corrections systems.
In his proposed second turn as attorney general, Barr has an opportunity to build a legacy of restoration, implementing changes to secure a better prison system that gives men and women behind bars opportunities to take responsibility for their crimes, make amends, and learn to live differently. This should include expanding access to faith-based reentry programs like the Prison Fellowship Academy®.
We know what happens when we lock people up in a system that does not rehabilitate them, and the costs to society—both human and financial—are far too high for us to continue to bear.
And we now know how we can protect the public while building a criminal justice system reflective of our deepest national values. If he is confirmed, Prison Fellowship urges Barr to support and execute the FIRST STEP Act as its framers and the public intend—to transform lives and protect American communities.
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