10 Things To Know About The Proposed Bipartisan Prison Reform Act, First Step

10 Things To Know About The Proposed Bipartisan Prison Reform Act, First Step

In an administration that seems hell-bent on breaking things, lawmakers have a chance to reach across the aisle and disrupt the prevailing spirit of divisiveness by advancing a proposed prison reform bill.

The proposed First Step Act, if adopted, will expand incentives in federal prison to prepare men and women for the workforce after they are released from incarceration.

Here are 10 things you should know about the proposed bipartisan prison reform act, FirstStep.

1.What the bill aims to do

The bill encourages inmates to participate in more vocational and rehabilitative programs, allowing “earned time credits” for early release to halfway houses or home confinement. This could help reduce prison overcrowding. Education programs may reduce the likelihood of recidivism — at least that’s the hope.

The bill increases “good time credits” that inmates can earn from 47 days per year incarcerated to 54. This allows inmates to cut their prison sentence by an additional week for each year incarcerated. This would apply retroactively.

The bill also aims to:

  • Authorize $50 million more funding a year over five years to support more programs in prisons.
  • Mandate that prisoners are placed within 500 driving miles of their families.
  • Help formerly incarcerated obtain identification after their release.
  • Impose a federal ban on shackling women who are pregnant or have just given birth.

2. Van Jones is heavily vested in seeing this bill become law

CNN contributor and host of “The Van Jones Show,” Van Jones is the co-founder of #cut 50, a bipartisan initiative to cut crime in half in the incarcerated population. An author and non-practicing attorney, Jones co-founded the nonprofits Dream Corps, a social justice accelerator that operates three advocacy initiatives including #cut50, #Yeswecode and Green for All.

Jones co-wrote a recent CNN opinion piece with Mark Holden, a lawyer for Koch Industries who is chairman of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. They promote the bill as “Congress’ chance to fix our failing prison system.”

3. A former corrections officer is part of the bipartisan push for the bill

A former corrections officer at the Worcester County jail in the early 1980s, Koch Industries attorney Mark Holden now advocates for criminal justice reform and giving ex-offenders a fair chance at employment.

“There but for the grace of God go I,” Holden said in a 2016 Worster Telegram interview.

The Koch family is known for their political activities (donating to conservative and Republican Party causes), and control of Koch Industries, one of the largest privately owned company in the U.S.

4. The bill had overwhelming bipartisan support in one House committee

Earlier this month the House Judiciary Committee voted 25–5 to advance the First Step Act bill.

5. Support for the bill is mirrored in the American public

A recent Justice Action Network Poll shows that 60 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of Independents and 80 percent of Democrats support some criminal justice reform and 85 percent want the criminal justice system focus more on rehabilitation according to CNN.

6.The First Step Act has limited reach

The First Step Act — short for Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act — has its limited reach written into its name. It’s only the first step in reforming the federal criminal justice system. It won’t amount to a big change in America’s criminal justice system, partly because the federal prison system makes up a relatively small portion of the incarcerated U.S. population, Vox reported.

The bill won’t reform or reduce how long people are sentenced, which has been the main focus of criminal justice reformers over the past few years. Instead, it focuses on rehabilitating people once they’re already in prison by incentivizing them, with the possibility of earlier release, to take part in rehabilitation programs.

7.The First Step system is data-driven. That is causing criticism

The First Step system would use an algorithm to initially determine who can cash in earned time credits. Inmates deemed higher risk can earn credits but are not cash them in until their risk level is reduced.

The algorithm risks “embedding deep racial and class bias into decisions that heavily impact the lives and futures of federal prisoners and their families,” the advocacy group Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a letter to lawmakers. The group typically backs criminal justice reform, Vox reported:

An algorithm that excludes someone from earning credits due to previous criminal history may overlook that black and poor people are more likely to be incarcerated for crimes even when they’re not more likely to actually commit those crimes.”

8.The bill is not universally popular

For those in Congress who want to tackle the broader issue of sentencing reform, the bill is a disappointment, CBS reported. Several other civil rights groups including the ACLU and the NAACP have issues with the bill.

9.Some fear the bill will pave the way to privatization

Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, joined Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Ill., Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California in trying to stop the bill by warning colleagues in a letter that the roots of the bill’s recidivism reduction system was flawed, could not be implemented effectively, gave too much discretion to Attorney General Sessions and would lead to prison privatization:

“We believe that prison reform will fail if we do not address the mandatory minimum sentences that have filled our prisons with individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses.”


10.Eric Holder is opposed to the bill in its current form

To reform America’s prisons, we must change the laws that send people to them in the first place, Holder wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece on May 21. The former U.S. attorney general from 2009 to 2015, Holder said:

“Anything less represents a failure of leadership. But now the Trump administration is pushing a misguided legislative effort …  that threatens to derail momentum for sentencing reform. The bill is a tempting half-measure, but lawmakers should resist the lure. The chance to implement real, comprehensive reform may not come again any time soon.”