Congress Must Follow President Trump's Lead to Reduce Recidivism and Build Safer Communities

Just in time for the Christmas holiday – which symbolizes the opportunity for hope and renewal for tens of millions of Americans – the Senate has delivered another occasion for many across the country to be hopeful: a major, bipartisan victory on criminal justice reform.  The "First Step Act," which passed by an overwhelming 87-12 vote, is the culmination of years' worth of work by lawmakers and stakeholders from across the political spectrum and is the most significant such piece of legislation in a generation.

The First Step Act is also a big win for President Donald Trump, who has long supported efforts to revamp the federal prison system – given his campaign promise to fight for America's "forgotten men and women" and his desire to "reduce crime while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption."

At the federal level, the need for redemption is sorely apparent, and this bill was founded upon that and other hard realities.  Currently, about 95 percent of those who ever enter prison will leave one day – regardless of their offense.  Unfortunately, as many as two thirds of them will return to communities nationwide and commit another offense within five years.  The purpose of the corrections system is to correct behavior, but it's obvious that prisons are not living up to their charter.  By any objective standard, but especially to those of us who prize law and order as the backbone of a safe and civil society, such an abysmal record is an abject failure.

Conservatives – particularly those in Southern red states who have led on crime reduction and justice reform for over a decade – are the ones that have earned the credibility to address and fix such a broken state of affairs.  Indeed, conservatives have been involved in this congressional effort since the beginning to help balance the need for public safety and rehabilitation.

There are two main provisions of the First Step Act: prison reform and modest sentencing reforms.

Prisons should not simply be warehouses for those who have broken the law; what prisoners do while in lockup matters.  Because so many prisoners do eventually get released, it behooves society to make attempts to incentivize as many inmates as possible to meaningfully change their behavior.  Prison reforms in this bill encourage those who are willing to take ownership over themselves to participate in various forms of programming – job and vocational training, substance abuse and mental health treatment, faith-based ministry, etc. – in exchange for time credits used to spend a portion of their sentence in halfway houses or home confinement.

This is not "early release" or a "jailbreak," as much misdirection has led some to believe.  There are over 60 violent offenses or classes of offenses that are statutorily excluded from all time credits; all participants must have been validated by risk assessment as being low to moderate risk; and all participants remain under tight supervision by the Bureau of Prisons.

Recidivism is a stubborn problem.  This sort of programming has been successful at the state level in bending re-offense rates down, and even modest improvements could yield thousands of fewer crimes – and fewer victims – over time.  To do nothing would have been to acquiesce to continued mediocrity and potential tragedy.

Meanwhile, the First Step Act contains four sentencing provisions that ease some the worst excesses of federal mandatory minimums, including the retroactive application of previous legislation that reduced sentence disparities between crack and powder cocaine and an expansion of the judicial "safety valve."  Many mandatory sentences that offenders receive are so absurdly punitive relative to their crimes that judges have been increasingly vocal in their disapproval of them, one calling them "unjust, cruel, and even irrational."  Disproportionate sentences undermine the moral legitimacy of our laws and can imprison people longer than is necessary to achieve any public safety benefit.

In other words, fairness is an indelible aspect of American justice.  These fixes will help reclaim that axiom.

Past administrations mounted an ineffective, 11th-hour foray into criminal justice reform that failed to build important coalitions and leverage growing momentum.  President Trump – along with leaders in Congress – has now delivered.  We must do better than to simply punish the wrongdoer yet fail to minister to the redeemable person.  Both are possible at the same time, and the First Step Act will help achieve both.

Ken Blackwell, a former mayor of Cincinnati, was a domestic policy adviser to the Trump Presidential Transition Team.