Taking the FIRST STEP: Why the Time for Justice Reform is Now

Editor’s Note: The FIRST STEP Act was signed into law on December 21, 2018.

By Olivia Schoffstall

At the start of this holiday season members of Congress, the White House, and several advocacy organizations gathered to hear President Trump declare his support for a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill.

In doing so, he sent a message long awaited by 180,000 men and women in federal prison: The time for meaningful reform is now.

The bill the president referred to is the FIRST STEP Act, and that is just what it is—a first step toward restoring America’s broken criminal justice system.

The FIRST STEP Act would increase the amount of transformative programming—like drug rehabilitation, skills training, faith-based classes, and work programs—federal prisoners can access. Men and women who participate in these programs’ opportunities would have the ability to serve shorter sentences through earned- or good-time credits. Many of these restorative programs are offered by faith-based organizations, who are a key partner to the Bureau of Prisons in implementing successful prison reform.

The legislation would also make federal prisons and communities safer through individualized risk assessments. Experienced law-enforcement officers would determine whether a prisoner is a danger and make sure the programs offered are aligned with their needs. In addition, the legislation would address the needs of incarcerated women by enforcing the prohibition of shackling pregnant and laboring mothers who are incarcerated. Overall, the FIRST STEP Act aims to improve public safety by reinvesting the savings from reforms back into local law enforcement efforts and in-prison programming to reduce the likelihood of those who are incarcerated returning to prison.

The House passed the bill with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 360-59 on May 22. Since the midterm elections, the Senate has introduced an amended version of the bill that incorporates several key sentencing reforms, among other changes. These sentencing reforms are critical to ensuring federal punishments are just and proportional.

If passed, the FIRST STEP Act will help men and women in our federal prisons succeed by better preparing them to hold jobs, participate in our communities as active and contributing members of society, and reunite with their families rather than returning to crime. The bill’s provisions would recognize the human dignity in every prisoner and give them ample opportunity to be equipped to re-enter society.

The impact of the criminal justice system isn’t limited to court rooms, jails, and prisons—it tangibly affects our families, communities, congregations, and economy every day.

The president announced his support for this bipartisan deal on November 14, stating that he will be “waiting with a pen” to sign this bill into law. However, the FIRST STEP Act still faces some opposition in the Senate. These dissenting voices and the dwindling days left in the legislative session make it difficult, though not impossible, to get the amended bill through both chambers of Congress before the new year. According to Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC), if it doesn’t make it through before the new year, the bill will become a “start-over project” that will become significantly more difficult to pass once Democrats take the House in January. Even if this legislation is passed, our nation’s criminal justice system will not be fixed overnight. The impact of the criminal justice system isn’t limited to court rooms, jails, and prisons—it tangibly affects our families, communities, congregations, and economy every day. Some 70 million Americans—that’s 1 in 3—have a criminal record today.

While Congress can and should pass reforms like the FIRST STEP Act to improve our justice system, civil society has a distinct role to play as well. People of faith are called to visit those in prison and welcome citizens returning from prison with open minds and hearts. Returning citizens face a myriad of barriers to their flourishing. There are more than 44,000 documented legal restrictions on people with a conviction today, not to mention the social stigma that comes with having a criminal record. These restrictions vary state by state, but commonly limit or restrict individuals with a criminal record from accessing employment, housing, and their right to vote, among other things.

The Church is uniquely positioned and equipped to serve these returning citizens by welcoming them into their congregations. Additionally, businesses have the opportunity to implement fair-hiring practices that do not automatically preclude the formerly incarcerated from getting a job after they have paid their debt to society.

As Christian citizens, we are called to do our part in advancing fairness, proportionality, and opportunities for flourishing into our criminal justice system—whether we are elected officials or ordinary members of our communities. One way we can do this is by contacting our representatives to voice our support for justice reform. We can also serve and be vocal advocates of returning citizens and their families through the civil society institutions of which we are a part, including our churches, nonprofits, and businesses. The impact of crime and incarceration is far-reaching, but we can all help remove obstacles on the road to restoration.

Olivia Schoffstall is the advocacy operations manager at Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families, and a leading voice for criminal justice reform.