Each year about 40,000 federal prisoners are released, but about half will be arrested again within three years. The revolving door of criminal justice is devastating to families and depresses economic activity in many communities. We owe it to the communities most affected by crime and incarceration to ensure that federal prisoners have the greatest possibility for rehabilitation while in prison and success upon release.
The demand for rehabilitative programming in the federal prison system far exceeds capacity. For example, the Bureau of Prisons recently reported that approximately 16,000 people are on a waitlist for basic literacy programming. This means incarcerated men and women aren't getting sufficient reentry preparation in prison and as a result, our communities are less safe.
Additionally, the federal prison system offers much less opportunity for prisoners to transition to community corrections before the end of their sentence compared to almost all states (see this comparison chart). This is due to multiple policies, including limited time credits given for good behavior in prison and because only one federal prison programs qualifies for "earned time" credit (the Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program enables participants to earn one-year off their sentence).
The federal prison system currently holds more than 180,000 incarcerated men and women, making it the largest prison system in the country. The Bureau of Prisons population exceeds its system capacity by 14 to 25 percent, with highest over-crowding in medium and high security facilities. Limiting the transition time for prisoners to move to community corrections before the end of their sentence exacerbates this overcrowding, making it difficult to run effective programs and to keep prison officials and prisoners safe.
Further, federal sentences and enhancements are excessive and unjust in some cases, particularly for drug crimes. For example, a defendant charged as part of a drug conspiracy—even a low-level courier, who may be involved in order to support a personal addiction—can be charged and sentenced with a mandatory minimum based on the total amount of drugs sold by everyone who participated in that conspiracy (even if the courier never knew who these people were or what quantity of drugs they sold).
The FIRST STEP Act (H.R.5682 and S.3649).
KEY SPONSORS AND STATUS
The FIRST STEP Act is sponsored by Representatives Doug Collins (GA) and Hakeem Jeffries (NY) and the amended Senate version is sponsored by Senators Chuck Grassley (IA) and Dick Durbin (IL).
See current House cosponsors on the House FIRST STEP Act, which passed the House in an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 360-59 on May, 22, 2018 (see House vote results). The Senate introduced an amended version of the bill (S.3649), which incorporates several key sentencing reforms, among other changes. The President announced his support for this bipartisan deal on November 14, 2018.
WHAT THE LEGISLATION DOES
- Expands Prison Programs and Earned Time Credits Opportunities: The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is required to increase and improve prison programming and productive activities, such as drug rehabilitation, education, skills training, faith-based classes, and work programs, in partnership with non-profit and faith-based organizations. All programs that reduce recidivism may qualify for earned time credits.
- Risk Assessment: The Department of Justice must develop a Post-Sentencing Risk and Needs Assessment System and implement it in all facilities in order to assign the most effective programming to each individual. Prisoners will be reassessed annually.
- Provides Incentives for Program Completion: All prisoners who complete programs may be eligible for incentives such as increased phone and visitation privileges, increased commissary spending levels, the opportunity to move to a facility closer to family where appropriate. Lower-risk prisoners are eligible to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement, providing for a smoother and safer transition back into their communities and lessening the overcrowding in federal prisons over time.
- Clarifies the Good Time Credit Calculation: The bill will clarify that Congress’ intent that all prisoners are eligible for a maximum of 54 days per year in credit for good behavior (the current Bureau of Prison calculation results in an annual maximum of 47 days per year).
- Improves Faith-Based Program and Volunteer Access: Prevents discrimination against faith-based programs and instructs the Bureau of Prisons that faith-based programs proven to reduce recidivism are permitted to function as education and reentry programs.
- Sentencing Reforms:
- The enhanced mandatory minimums for prior serious drug felonies are reduced: the three-strikes penalty is reduced from life imprisonment to 25 years and the 20 year minimum is reduced to 15 years. Serious violent felonies are now added to this three-strikes enhancement penalty.
- The criteria for the federal safety valve, which allows judges to depart from a mandatory minimum, is expanded to include defendants with up to four criminal history points, excluding misdemeanors, and restricting those with any 3-point offenses or any two-point violent offenses.
- Clarifies that mandatory minimum sentence enhancements under 18 USC § 924(c) for use of a firearm during the commission of multiple crimes is limited to people who have been previously convicted and served a sentence for such an offense, focusing our resources on recidivists.
- Allows currently incarcerated federal prisoners sentenced for a crack cocaine offense prior to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to petition for relief consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act.
- Addresses the Needs of Incarcerated Women: Prohibits the practice of shackling pregnant and laboring mothers who are incarcerated, unless the woman poses an immediate and serious risk to herself, her child, or others. Requires the Bureau of Prisons to provide feminine hygiene products to incarcerated women at no cost.
- Reinvests Savings to Improve Public Safety: Savings from the above reforms will be reinvested in local law enforcement efforts and recidivism-reduction programs.
HOW IT ADVANCES OUR VALUES
Prison Fellowship believes each person impacted by crime and incarceration has intrinsic value and the capacity for change. We believe a restorative approach is the key to building a better criminal justice system and we support legislation that upholds our values.
The expansion of prison programming and stronger partnerships with faith-based and other non-profit organizations will help promote a more constructive prison culture, which is at the heart of Prison Fellowship’s mission. Federal prisons should provide opportunities for men and women behind bars to make amends and earn back the public’s trust. The regular use of risk assessment, individualized prison program plans, and opportunities for earlier release to community corrections, will be a significant step in transforming the federal prison system.
Additionally, we applaud the sentencing reform additions, which will restore more proportional sentencing enhancements and allow for greater judicial flexibility in certain limited cases. These changes permit defendants to be sentenced in a manner that is more consistent with their culpability and role.
This First Step Act will allow men and women in our federal prisons to return home sooner and better prepared to give back to their families and communities at their highest potential.
PRISON FELLOWSHIP'S WORK ON THE FIRST STEP ACT
Prison Fellowship has played a leading role in building support for the FIRST STEP Act. Here are just a few of the strategies we have deployed to advance this legislation:
- Prison Fellowship spearheaded this sign-on letter, which was joined by over 40 other organizations, and sent it to all House and Senate offices.
- Our government affairs staff meets with dozens of Congressional offices to present why this bill is a critical first step toward reforming the federal prison system and to equip policymakers with research resources.
- Our Justice Advocate grassroots network is continually engaged and equipped to weigh in directly with their members of Congress. Our Justice Ambassadors are trained and deployed to make meetings with their elected officials to share their support for the FIRST STEP Act.
- Prison Fellowship, FAMM and other partners co-hosted the Families for Justice Reform Now Rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on July 10th. We also facilitated constituent lobby visits by pastors and families with incarcerated loved ones to Senate offices to be a witness for the men and women behind bars who would benefit from the passage of FIRST STEP Act.
- Review Prison Fellowship's latest press release applauding the President, Senate and House for reaching an agreement on sentencing reforms added to the Senate version of the bill.
- Read some of the many media articles about prison reform that mention Prison Fellowship, including those found at the New York Times, the Christian Post, Catholic Online, the Baptist Press, World Magazine, CBN News, and Religion News Service.
HOW YOU CAN TAKE ACTION
It only takes a minute to speak up for the tens of thousands of lives that will be impacted by the FIRST STEP Act. Use our easy online advocacy tool to send a letter to your members of Congress in support of comprehensive justice reform!