The First Step Act:  It’s Only a ‘First Step’

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Matthew Charles

Matthew Charles, sentenced in 1996 to 35 years on drug-related offenses was among the first to be released from prison under the First Step Act earlier this year. He was President Trump’s guest at the State of the Union.

A poignant moment during the recent State of the Union address was listening to the story of Matthew Charles, a former prisoner who became one of the first persons released from incarceration under the First Step Act.

Charles was one of several special guests of the president in attendance.

Signed into law during the closing days of 2018, the bipartisan First Step Act expands rehabilitative programming, modifies some mandatory minimum laws to provide more proportional sentencing, and provides a second chance to people like  Charles who’ve worked hard to transform their lives while in prison.

The new law also freed Edward Douglas, who until recently was serving a life sentence in a federal prison for a nonviolent drug offense. Like Charles, Douglas used his time in prison to learn new skills and serve as a mentor to other prisoners.

The First Step Act is working in other ways too.

Despite the partial government shutdown, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has been implementing new compassionate release rules to help terminally ill prisoners and their families file for sentence reductions.


Ready for next step in prison reform? Photo by Kevin Burkett via Flickr

The law is also acting as a catalyst for states that haven’t yet reformed their criminal justice systems.

But as important as the law is, additional steps are needed to improve our criminal justice system. To bring about transformative change, policymakers at all levels must act.

The private sector, civic organizations and community leaders must also do their part to ensure that the formerly incarcerated can find work, housing and access the tools they need to succeed after being freed.

First up for government is ensuring that the provisions of the new law are carried out faithfully.

Make Sentencing Changes Retroactive

Congress should apply three of the law’s sentencing changes retroactively, to help people who received overly harsh sentences under outdated policies and pass other front-end reforms that prioritize prison beds for dangerous criminals while addressing low-level, nonviolent offenses through treatment and other programs that better serve this population.

In addition, Congress should codify the Supreme Court ruling that requires prosecutors share all of the information that they have about the alleged crime with the accused at the outset the case.

Lawmakers can also address our over-incarceration epidemic by clarifying criminal intent standards and working to rein in our bloated federal criminal code and regulatory code, under which virtually anyone can be charged with a crime.

The Trump administration can act on its own to reform the executive clemency process to create second chances for people who wouldn’t necessarily qualify for relief under the First Step Act.

Needed: More ‘Clean Slate’ Laws

States can parallel many of these federal actions by removing barriers for people with criminal records. More “Clean Slate” laws, like the one enacted in Pennsylvania last year, will create second chances for people by unblocking them from jobs, housing, and education.

States could also increase the transparency of their criminal justice systems through more data collection and enhanced due process protections for citizens. Across the country individuals are incarcerated awaiting trial without considering other factors like the potential for flight risk, or whether the individual poses a threat to public safety, while others are incarcerated due to excessive fees and fines, and technical violations.

Research has shown that even a brief period in jail can increase the likelihood of a low-risk defendant committing a new crime.

Businesses can help transform lives and enable people to contribute to their communities by hiring qualified candidates with criminal records.

I’m proud to work for Koch Industries, which hires people with criminal records and recently signed the Getting Talent Back to Work pledge with the Society for Human Resource Management to end outdated, non-inclusive hiring practices.

Train Returning Citizens in Employable Skills

Mark Holden

Mark Holden

Finally, groups like Hudson Link for Higher Education, Safe Streets & Second Chances and The Last Mile can provide incarcerated people with skills and identify obstacles that prevent them from succeeding after their release.

We believe, as Winston Churchill did, in “an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man.”

We all share a moral imperative to help find and unlock that treasure, to unleash the potential in everyone.

If we all do our part, we can bridge the partisan divide and build on the great foundation provided by the First Step Act.

It’s time to take the next steps on criminal justice reform, this year and beyond.

Editor’s Note: Mark Holden will join Holly Harris of the Justice Action Network and Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof to discuss the politics of justice reform at this week’s 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America. The conference will be livestreamed. The link will be announced shortly.

See also: New Prison Law May Aid Compassionate Releases

Mark Holden is general counsel of Koch Industries. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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