Sweeping Bipartisan Prison Reform Bill Passes House; Barrels Toward Senate
WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass the most substantial prison reform effort to date. H.R. 5682, the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed, Safely Transitioning Every Person Act (FIRST STEP), is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Republican Congressman Doug Collins (GA-09) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08), that will propel formerly-incarcerated individuals toward success when they return home, while enacting targeted reforms that would improve public safety and reduce recidivism. It authorizes $50 million per year for five years to develop new programs, including education, vocational training and mental health counseling. As a result, newly-released individuals will be positioned to successfully re-enter society.
The bill passed the House with a 360-59 bipartisan vote.
Rep. Jeffries said: “Passage of the FIRST STEP Act is a victory for all Americans who believe in justice and the power of redemption. This bill will transform lives by providing access to the mental health counseling, education, vocational services and substance abuse treatment needed to help incarcerated individuals get back on their feet and become productive members of society. The FIRST STEP Act is not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end. It's simply the end of the beginning on a journey undertaken to eradicate our mass incarceration epidemic in America. Rep. Collins should be commended for his tremendous leadership in this critical effort.”
Rep. Collins said: “This afternoon, my colleagues seized the opportunity to help men, women and their communities through federal prison reform. Today’s vote puts redemption back on the table for individuals who are committed to building brighter futures for themselves and their loved ones. Today’s vote recognizes the value of every person and responds with proven resources and restorative justice. Finally, today’s vote answers a question in the House and asks one of the Senate: Given the chance to accomplish good in this moment, will you act today or regret your inaction tomorrow? "Congressman Hakeem Jeffries has been a friend and partner in this endeavor, and he continues to be an exceptional ambassador for the faces woven into this bill."
Highlights of the bill include:
God Time Credit Fix: A provision which will ensure that incarcerated individuals can earn the 54 days of good time credit per year that Congress intended, and not just the 47 days that BOP currently allows. This retroactively applies to all prisoners who have earned credit for good behavior. It has been estimated by BOP and GAO that fixing this will lead to the release of roughly 4,000 prisoners and save $40 million in the first fiscal year.
The Establishment of a Risk-Reduction System: This system, which is already used at the state level to best match inmates to programs fitting their needs, must be based on dynamic factors to best lower someone’s risk of recidivating over time. The bill mandates that the system must be statistically validated and must be evaluated to ensure that it does not result in unwanted racial disparities in order to address concerns about prisoners of color being disproportionately impacted.
Focused Resources on High and Medium Risk Prisoners: Evidence shows that this kind of programming has the greatest impact on those prisoners who are at the greatest risk of recidivating. To make the bill as effective as possible, it gives priority to high and medium risk inmates. People will be able to participate in such programming throughout their sentence.
Requirement to Move People Closer to Home: The journey to visit loved ones in prison can be extremely burdensome and cost-prohibitive for families. However, contact with family reduces recidivism. That’s why the bill mandates that prisoners shall be placed within 500 driving miles of their families.
Focus on Dignity for Women: Being pregnant while incarcerated can be a harrowing experience. There are far too few guarantees for the health and safety of both mother and baby. Egregiously, there is no federal ban on shackling pregnant and post-partum women. This bill implements such a ban starting from the moment that a woman is confirmed to be pregnant and extending three months beyond her pregnancy. In addition, the bill requires that BOP provide sanitary napkins and tampons to incarcerated women for free.
Requirement for Provisions of IDs: When transitioning back into society, many formerly incarcerated individuals find themselves without proper identification necessary to access essential services like housing, or to apply for employment. Assisting formerly incarcerated individuals with obtaining ID prior to release will reduce the collateral consequences of incarceration by allowing a quicker integration back into society, as well as create significant cost savings for BOP of approximately $19 million.
Compassionate Release: The current prison population is aging, causing significant challenges. This bill expands the compassionate release program by a 10-year requirement from the elderly release pilot program created by the Second Chance Act. This reduces the minimum age of prisoner eligibility for elderly release from 65 years of age to 60 years of age, and minimum time served of prisoner eligibility for elderly release from 75% to 2/3. It also expands the program to all prisons—not just one. Finally, it allows the prisoner to seek relief under the program directly from a court so that administrative hurdles do not hamper one’s ability to be released.
The bill enjoys the support of more than 70 organizations, including the Equal Justice Initiative, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Gathering for Justice/Justice League NYC, the National Urban League, Freedom Works, the Charles Koch Foundation, #cut50, Public Defender Association and the CAN-DO Foundation.
The bill, which is supported by the White House, will now move to the United States Senate.