While negotiations to fully fund the government unfortunately remain underway in the Senate, I am pleased to report that lawmakers in both chambers of Congress did recently complete work on bipartisan legislation to improve the federal justice system. Already signed into law by the president and focused on building safer communities, the FIRST STEP Act ushers in common sense solutions to discourage repeat criminal offenders and ensure fair sentencing.
One of the key reforms included in the comprehensive law is aimed at identifying which federal prisoners might be capable and deserving of a second chance. This is accomplished through a new system to assess the risk and needs of each federal prisoner and help set them on the fairest and most appropriate rehabilitation path forward. To be sure, this does not mean that dangerous and violent criminals are able to walk free or serve less time for their crimes. Rather, the FIRST STEP Act seeks to keep prisoners from ending up behind bars again for the same crimes after returning to society. Further, it seeks to equip and encourage those who want to change while they serve their time.
With the goal of reducing recidivism, the legislation reauthorizes several programs from the Second Chance Act of 2007. This includes educational and job training programs with proven results. The legislation also encourages prisoner participation in some faith-based programs.
Along with programming to help prisoners from falling back on past behavior, the FIRST STEP Act makes some small changes to current sentencing laws. For example, the legislation addresses outdated sentences now considered too harsh under the Fair Sentencing Act. Again, this does not mean that sentences are reduced for dangerous, violent and high-risk criminals or repeat offenders and career criminals.
While the FIRST STEP Act specifically deals with the federal correctional system, the changes will undoubtedly make a difference in the total population of incarcerated persons—that is, prisoners serving time in either a local, state or federal facility. In Oklahoma, the rate of incarceration is particularly troubling. According to the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate in 2016 was the second highest in the nation.
Without question, Congress and the Administration delivered a historic legislative achievement with the FIRST STEP Act. It rightly focuses on the population of low-level, non-violent federal prisoners already on track to eventually be released and paves a better way for them to become productive members of society. Indeed, this fair yet compassionate legislation affirms that lives can be redeemed. Along with those across the political spectrum and various coalitions that even include members of law enforcement, I am proud to have supported this important legislation.
Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, is currently serving in his eighth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was identified as “one of the sharpest minds in the House,” by Time Magazine and “the hardest working Member of Congress,” by Newsmax. In 2017, Cole was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.