Opinion

The First Step Act Is Just the Beginning

Bipartisanship is not dead. Congress just proved it by passing the First Step Act, legislation that respects human dignity, shortens mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and expands access to rehabilitation programs in federal prisons.

President Donald Trump deserves credit for showing perseverance on this issue through almost a year of legislative back and forth, and for prodding lawmakers to act before the end of the year.

But as important as this bill is, considerable work remains to improve our criminal justice system. After all, the legislation just signed into law is aptly titled: the first step. To see what the second and third steps could look like, Washington need only to look to the states.

Beginning in 2007, Texas began expanding drug courts and mental health treatment while increasing educational and vocational training for Texas inmates. Additionally, prisons expanded programs to equip the incarcerated with the tools and resources they need to become productive and successful when they return to their communities.

As a result, over the past decade, Texas closed eight prisons and reduced its incarceration rate by more than 20 percent. More importantly, the crime rate fell in Texas by more than 30 percent, reaching a level not seen since 1967.

Other states, including Georgia and South Carolina, are embracing this approach to prisoner rehabilitation and reaping similar benefits.

Other aspects of our criminal justice system are also in need of reform.

Congress could look at our country’s harsh bail practices. For the poor, a bail fee that can exceed $20,000 effectively turns jail into a “debtor’s prison.” At times, high bail might be necessary to keep a violent offender off the streets or reduce the risk of flight. But often there is no risk assessment done to determine if a defendant poses a risk to public safety.

In 2018, Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced bipartisan legislation that would encourage states to incorporate greater risk assessments into their bail systems by considering a defendant’s criminal history and drug use. The new Congress should pick up where Harris and Paul left off.

When people are released from prison, they confront more than 40,000 legal barriers that make it harder to find housing, secure employment and perform a host of other day-to-day activities you and I take for granted. These barriers make it difficult for someone trying to turn their life around and contribute positively to society, increasing the risks of recidivism. Congress could immediately get to work by removing some of these barriers.

The executive branch can also get into the act by making the clemency and pardon process more transparent. Ideas being considered include moving the initial clemency petition screenings away from the Department of Justice toward independent panels or commissions to create a process that is fairer and more objective.

Finally, Congress could address civil asset forfeiture laws that allow law enforcement agencies to seize private property from individuals who have not been convicted – in some cases not even charged – with a crime. Many abuses occur at the state level, but ordinary Americans are also having their money confiscated under the federal Bank Secrecy Act, which prohibits breaking up large piles of cash into smaller bundles and depositing the sum in different institutions on different days.

With a new Congress eager to demonstrate that they are working on behalf of the American people and a criminal justice champion in the White House, the time to act is now. These reforms can restore dignity and common sense to our criminal justice system, while keeping our country and local communities safe.

Mark Holden is general counsel of Koch Industries.

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