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First Step Act will challenge leaders’ commitment to justice, public safety

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(Mike Koozmin/2014 S.F. Examiner)

In a political landscape barren of major bipartisan achievements, there’s hope on the horizon.

On May 22, the U.S. House of Representatives cut across party divides to pass the First Step Act, which aims to transform lives and protect Americans through meaningful federal prison reform. The bill passed by an overwhelming majority, demonstrating a growing consensus that preparation for reentry must begin on the first day of incarceration. We cannot wait to rehabilitate federal prisoners.

Almost all of them will come home, and their success — or failure—will affect the well-being of families and communities throughout California and the nation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Cedric Richmond, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, were among the representatives to demonstrate a commitment to justice by voting in favor of the measure. Now, with no other hope of relief for federal prisoners before the midterm elections, it’s up to the Senate to see that this bill advances to the president’s desk.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has voted in favor of similar measures, but Sen. Kamala Harris has expressed her opposition, believing the bill does not go far enough.

The First Step Act, however, is no small step for the men and women languishing in prison and the loved ones who await their return. It will pave the way to rehabilitate federal prisoners, protect public safety and provide opportunities for prisoners to be released sooner for good behavior. These are common-sense goals that cut across the ideological spectrum.

The bill’s sponsors worked tirelessly to negotiate a bill that reflects their shared belief in human dignity and potential. Most Americans also want their criminal justice system to embody these values.

A recent nationwide Barna Group survey commissioned by Prison Fellowship found that 87 percent of Americans believe that the main goal of the criminal justice system should be to restore all parties affected, something the Bureau of Prisons could do much more effectively.

The federal prison system holds more than 180,000 men and women—including more than 13,000 in California. Half of the 40,000 federal prisoners released annually will be arrested again within eight years, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. This systemic failure to rehabilitate has long betrayed communities already struggling beneath the weight of crime and incarceration. After decades of locking people up with no viable path to rehabilitation, Americans are demanding that their leaders embrace a better approach.

Many people in federal prison are ready to change, but lack access to even the most basic tools for rehabilitation. There are 16,000 people on a wait list for literacy classes. Others need substance-abuse treatment, job skills training, and other opportunities to turn their lives around.

The First Step Act would require the Bureau of Prisons to implement individualized risk assessments, and then tailor programming to prepare prisoners for more productive, law-abiding futures.

Under the bill, all federal prisoners would be eligible for incentives to strengthen families, including increased phone time with loved ones and transfer to a facility closer to home. In addition, by completing risk-reduction programming, some low-risk federal prisoners would be able to earn the right to transition from prison to residential reentry centers or home confinement earlier in their sentences. This would improve public safety. When released, people can learn to navigate reentry with accountability and support systems, they succeed more often.

Of all the prison reform legislation floated in recent years, the First Step Act has the greatest chance of gaining consensus and achieving passage, but the window of opportunity is closing.

The time to act is now.

By bridging partisan divides, the Senate can answer the country’s call for a more restorative, effective prison system. Men and women behind bars are reaching out eager hands for tools to build better futures. Now the only question is: Will Congress set aside its divisions long enough to give them what they’re asking for?

James J. Ackerman, a California resident, is the president and chief executive officer of Prison Fellowship.

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