Maintaining law and order is one of government’s primary responsibilities, but protecting the rights and freedoms of citizens is just as important. With somewhere around 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, there is a need to run a just prison system that is capable of reforming inmates. Regrettably, there are about 10.6 million prison admissions every year with the vast majority either waiting to be prosecuted or serving less than a one-year prison sentence. More than half of the 626, 000 people who walk through prison gates will be rearrested within one year while over three-quarters will be rearrested within five years. Suffice it to say, recidivism is very high within the US prison system. Clearly, there is a need to address the high recidivism rate with programs that help prevent former inmates from regressing to the behaviors and lifestyles that resulted in their initial arrest.
The First Step Act seeks to confront many of the issues driving America’s high prison recidivism rate. Not only is the First Step Act a pet project of President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and an initiative supported by Donald Trump, the US House of Representatives passed the bill by 360 to 59. Outside of those against everything Trump, the First Step Act is a political win for everyone. First Step Act is not a comprehensive reform bill nor does not it attempt to address every problem in America’s prison system. What it does is incentivize inmates to participate in vocational and rehabilitative programs by affording them greater opportunities to “earn time credits,” which allow them to earn their freedom sooner while providing them with the training needed to function outside of the prison system. It is not a final solution, but it is a good first step that can help the incarcerated and ease the burden on the US prison system.
There is, however, opposition to the First Step Act. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to even allow the legislation to receive a vote. The House is notorious for passing partisan, ill-conceived legislation on the whims of newly elected majorities, which is why the the Senate acts as a check on the House. In this case, and others where the House has acted responsibly in a bipartisan manner, the Senate is little more than a source of paralysis. Where US Senators are supposed to act on the collective interests of their constituents, while the Senate Majority Leader is supposed to simply organize and manage the legislative process, Mitch McConnell, like many in his position, is using his power to block legislation in order to pursue a political agenda. Powerful figures like Republican Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin stand in the way of progress, because they want their preferred legislation passed, i.e. what gives them credit.
Aside from the corruption and paralysis of power politics, there is also Democratic opposition to the First Step Act, because it does not include sentencing reform. Sentencing reform could be helpful, if a sensible change in mandatory sentencing rules could be devised, but the President has already promised to reject any of the options on the table. Perhaps more importantly, sentencing guidelines are a complicated issue that require a thoughtful debate. That said, the reason Democrats want to include sentencing reform in the First Step Act is that sentencing reform is unlikely to be addressed separately. They want to couple the current reform effort with sentencing reform in order to capitalize on the support for the First Step Act and force some initiative through. It is an example of old school politics. It is also an example of why government is so dysfunctional.
When it comes to well-supported, well-conceived legislative efforts like the First Step Act, Congress needs to stop playing politics. The Senate needs to take the win by allowing individual Senators to choose to vote on the House bill. There may well not be enough votes in the Senate to pass the First Step Act, yet there still needs to be an honest legislative effort to address a compelling interest. Today, the legislative process and the political system have become increasingly dysfunctional. The only way to reverse the downward spiral is to cultivate an honest legislative process by embracing quality legislation when it comes along. Instead of playing power politics, which only benefits individual political leaders, and resorting to underhanded tactics, the Senate needs to debate the First Step Act and individual Senators need to be allowed to vote their conscience.
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