WASHINGTON – After months of anticipation, a bipartisan bid at prison reform is making its way through a key committee in the US House.
The FIRST STEP Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins, R-GA, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-NY, has the backing of both Christian groups and the White House.
The bill, now before the House Judiciary Committee, aims to tackle recidivism rates by addressing the needs of prisoners before they are released.
“The question is: Do we offer them a redemptive path, or are we simply a punitive, corrective path?” Rep. Collins told CBN News.
The legislation would “direct the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) to conduct risk and needs assessments for every offender upon sentencing, and then to offer individualized, evidence-based recidivism reduction plans to all inmates, without exception.”
Those plans would include access to anger management, job training, mental health support and treatment for substance abuse.
Some prisoners would also be eligible for good time credit of up to 54 days off their sentence – an increase from the current 47 days.
According to Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry that supports the measure, nearly 50 percent of inmates released from prison will return within three years.
Even with broad bipartisan support, the FIRST STEP Act still has a mountain to climb before it reaches the House floor.
An earlier attempt at a markup was shelved because some felt it addressed prison reform without enacting sentencing reform. The Congressional recess gave leaders time to come together on some of the issues.
Opponents on both sides of the aisle believe you can’t have one without the other and want to see issues like the mandatory minimum sentences restricted.
Critics say mandatory minimum sentences strip judges of their right to allow the punishment to fit the criminal, not just the crime.
Collins says there are additional things he would like to see, too, but now is the time to act.
“It’s a three-legged stool. We have the House, the Senate, and the president. We have a chance to make a difference here,” he urged.
“If you’re against this bill, I respect that. But then you go to the families of these individuals who are incarcerated and say, ‘We don’t want to start a program in which they can earn time and get recidivism and lower their possibility of mental health issues and lower their issues with drug dependency,'” he challenged.
While Collins sees people as the heart of the matter, he also believes it does not mean turning a blind eye to certain criminals.
“There are some people who need to be locked up,” he said. “There are some people who have done such heinous acts that we’re scared of them. Those need to have bed space.”
Another political mountain looms past congress: the Department of Justice.
Changes to sentencing rules could run into trouble with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has opposed similar pursuits in the past.
So far, President Trump has agreed to sign the bill as is. Including sentencing could jeopardize that.
“I don’t know that we have the political unity, especially on the right, to get sentencing reform through,” Alex Gudich Deputy Director of #cut50 told CBN News.
“Nor do we necessarily have the ability to get this White House to sign a bill that has any type of sentencing reform that we would be happy with, for now,” he continued.
Still, #cut50, the mass incarceration reduction group co-founded by CNN Contributor Van Jones and human rights attorney Jessica Jackson Sloan, says it supports the bill even if it addresses only part of the issue.
“I think by breaking apart sentencing and prison reform, we are able to take a first step together, which will yield to more steps in the future,” he explained. “That’s why this bill was renamed the FIRST STEP Act.”
Opponents also take issue with the narrow list of offenders. For example, the original list excluded people convicted of smaller drug offenses. Now, low-level drug offenders are eligible, while those directly tied to murder, terrorism, sex offenses or other violent crimes remain ineligible.
Gudich sees promise on that front as well. The FIRST STEP Act is modeled after successful prison reform programs in Texas and Georgia.
Meanwhile, White House adviser Jared Kushner has been a pivotal behind-the-scenes player in this movement.
According to Politico, Kushner spent time on Capitol Hill Monday evening mustering support for the bill.
In late April, several members of the evangelical community, including Bishop Harry Jackson and evangelist Paula White, met with Kushner to hash out details of the reform plan.
The bill will rely on faith-based organizations to help with the reformation process.
Heather Rice-Minus – vice president of government affairs for Prison Fellowship – says faith, restoration, and justice are at the heart of the issue.
“The fact is, even if you don’t have a loved one in prison, the scope of crime and incarceration is so great, it touches all of us,” Rice-Minus told CBN News.
“Almost everyone in prison is coming home at some point – it’s in everyone’s best interest that they come home ready to give back to society at their God-given potential,” she continued. “That preparation work needs to start at the day of arrest, not the day of release.”
Collins’ own experience, as both a pastor and the son of a Georgia State Trooper, helped to shape his view of the issue.
“Everybody that we meet has intrinsic value in God’s eyes,” Collins explained.
“This is good for families; this is good for people; this is good for the general spirit of life,” he continued.