Incarceration has a clear upside. It may account for as much as 35 percent of the drop in violent crime since the 1980s. But it also allows for anti-social attitudes and relationships to fester among inmates before they return to society.
But the First Step Act may offer a way to square the circle: It would enable law enforcement to remain tough on offenders with appropriately long prison sentences even as it expands prison programs designed to reduce crime. It would also end programs that are ineffective and wasteful.
So, it is no surprise that many law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police, International Association of Chiefs of Police, National District Attorneys Association, and National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, support the First Step Act. Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a former deputy sheriff, who explained that similar criminal justice reforms in Mississippi have reduced crime by 6 percent and saved $40 million.
That excellent news is no surprise, either, because other conservative states including Texas, Georgia, and Kansas have also adopted similar measures and seen crime go down. One Texan, Jim Arnold, knows this success story well. He says he joined a Toastmasters program at 45 because he “was too scared to even open [his] mouth in a Bible study. The program so dramatically changed my life for the better,” Arnold said, “I knew it would do the same for the guys I was mentoring in prison at the time.”
Toastmasters teaches participants the values of integrity, respect, service, and excellence; primarily through “regularly giving speeches, gaining feedback, leading teams and guiding others to achieve their goals in a supportive atmosphere.”
Jim formed the nonprofit prison ministry Skills for Life to bring those much needed values of the Toastmasters curriculum to inmates across his home state of Texas. Years later, Skills for Life remains “dedicated to providing inmates with the servant leadership and communication skills they need to live lives of excellence upon release from prison.” The programs also encourage inmates “to use these tools while incarcerated so as to change the culture in prison.”
“I have been determined not to succumb to the notoriously negative impact that prison life has on a person’s character,” one participant wrote; “I intend to continue working toward my goal of self-improvement and becoming an effective speaker, which will be skills useful in my job search once released and, also, in retaining that job once I get it.”
Skills for Life records the recidivism rates of its program participants, and they trump average recidivism rates across Texas. The First Step Act would allow private and non-profit groups such as Skills for Life to bring federal inmates programming designed and evaluated with one clear goal in mind: to increase the number of people who leave prison ready to join the workforce and never return.
Jared Kushner, senior adviser to President Trump, and Tomas Philipson, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote, “if recent trends hold, almost half of federal inmates who were conditionally released will be rearrested within 5 years of release.” To address that public safety problem, the First Step Act would subject each inmate to an assessment to identify their risk of recidivating as well as any particular problems that may send them back to prison, such as mental health or anger management issues, and match inmates to evidence-based programming that would address those issues.
The bill would provide incentives to successfully participate in and complete those programs. Low and minimum risk inmates could earn time credits they could “cash in” to serve the final portion of their sentence under community confinement so long as they maintain good behavior. The bill carries a long list of exclusions from the earned time credit incentives that would apply to many serious and violent offenders. But higher risk inmates could earn incentives in the form of additional phone or visitation time, and the like.
Opportunities to further reduce crime are waiting. The Justice Department has reported to Congress that occupational training programs have seen a 33 percent reduction in recidivism among participating inmates. Federal Prison Industries, a work skills program, has seen as much as a 24 percent reduction, while education programs have seen a 16 percent reduction, and residential drug abuse treatment have seen more than a 15 percent reduction.
The Council of Economic Advisers recently found that, as Kushner and Philipson write, “certain prison programs not only reduce crime, but also lower overall prison spending by reducing the costs associated with prison reentry.” The Council estimated that “mental health or substance abuse treatment” may reduce overall costs of crime and incarceration “by up to $5 for every $1 invested by taxpayers.”
So the question now before the Senate is a simple one. As legal expert Paul Larkin Jr. wrote in 2014, “Should [we] simply warehouse prisoners until they have served their sentences or provide them with educational, substance abuse, anger management, job training programs and the like in the hope that those offerings may reduce, if not eliminate, the risk that they will recidivate?”
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 11/28/18