On December 21 of 2018, Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law. This piece of legislation has been marked by some as a massive breakthrough in criminal justice reform. The bill is intended to “ensure people are prepared to come home from prison job-ready and have major incentives to pursue the life-changing classes that will help them succeed on the outside” and includes changes that will potentially lower the cost of upkeep for correctional facilities.
Improving Experiences of Time in Prison and Their Outcomes
Many of the aspects of the First Step Act are geared towards decreasing recidivism (people returning to criminal behavior after being released from prison) through opportunities and resources that help prepare people for their lives after incarceration. For example, the bill creates strong incentives to encourage prisoners to participate in preparative programs that are available to them. For every 30 days of “successful participation,” individuals can receive 10 days of prerelease custody, where they are transferred to halfway houses or home confinement. Incentives can also include increased phone and visitation privileges, access to email, increased commissary spending, and other requested incentives.
The bill also designates $250 million to be used over five years by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to expand and develop skill-building classes and vocational training opportunities. It also allows the BOP to work with outside organizations that can provide such classes. According to the First Step Act, prisoners who are at a medium or high risk of recidivism are to be prioritized for receiving these opportunities, as well as counseling and treatment. Before leaving federal prison, all are to receive their ID, allowing people to re-enter society more quickly and avoid “collateral consequences of incarceration.”
In order to make it less difficult for families to visit, the bill states that people should not be placed in prisons that are more than “500 driving miles” away from their families. This improves their ability to maintain ties with their relatives, which can improve their quality of life while incarcerated and make the process of reintegration into society easier afterwards. With the help of a strong support system and the tools needed to find work, released prisoners have a better chance of finding their place in their communities and not being reincarcerated later.
Decreasing the Population Actually in Prison
There are some aspects of the First Step Act that help to decrease the population of people in prison. Increases the number of days of good time credit, which is earned through good behavior, from 47 to 54 days per year. This change also applies to everyone in federal prisons who has already earned good time credit. It is estimated that this change will save $40 million in the first year. Additionally, the bill required the BOP to transfer prisoners that are considered low/minimum risk to prerelease custody and expanded compassion release. Eligibility for the elderly offender program of compassion release now starts at age 60 instead of 65, the minimum portion of one’s sentence that must be served has been decreased from 75% to 66.7%, and the program is now available in all prisons.
Views of the Purpose of Prison
One’s understanding of the importance of legislation like the First Step Act can be significantly impacted by their perspective on the purposes of prisons. Some people believe that prisons should be used to achieve retributive justice, where the main purpose is to punish criminals for their wrong-doings and to have them suffer for their action. For someone who believes in retributive justice, the changes made by the First Step Act may not seem so important.
Alternatively, other people believe that the incarceration system should be used to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them to re-enter society as individuals who can make more positive contributions to their community and avoid taking actions that would lead them back to imprisonment. When you look at the First Step Act from this point of view, it is easy to see why the bill’s intended impacts are so significant. It gives people a chance to learn from their mistakes and helps them become more productive members of society.
Why It Matters
As of 2016, there were 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States. That year, $57.7 billion were spent in state expenses for the upkeep of correctional facilities.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Chronic illnesses go untreated, emergencies are ignored, and patients with serious mental illness fail to receive necessary care,” which, in some cases, has led to the deaths of incarcerated individuals. This violates Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that everyone has the right to a living standard that is sufficient to support their health and well-being and specifically includes things like medical care and vital social services. Prison authorities are legally responsible for providing prisoners with their medical needs, based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Estelle v. Gamble. The ruling recognizes the potential of ignoring these needs to “amount to cruel and unusual punishment” due to the pain and suffering they can cause. However, overcrowding in prisons and a lack in resources makes giving prisoners the care they need a challenge.
The intended outcomes of the First Step Act can improve the access to human rights of people who have been incarcerated. As it is said in the UN’s Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, prisoners are entitled to all the rights that are declared in the UDHR and other human rights documents and should have access to resources that can aid their ability to successfully rejoin society. Decreasing rates of recidivism, as the actions of the First Step Act hopefully will, helps to lower the number of people in prison overall. This allows for a change in the allocation of funds to take better care of people living in prisons, giving them greater access to their human rights. People living in prisons are human beings just like everyone else and should not be treated as anything less.