Bill to Reduce Mass Incarceration, Lower Recidivism Signed into Law
Bipartisan legislation that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard co-sponsored and worked to pass would improve public safety, empower formerly-incarcerated individuals, and reduce recidivism and was signed into law on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. The Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed, Safely Transitioning Every Person (FIRST STEP) Act, H.R. 5682, would authorize $75 million per year for five years to develop new programs—including education, vocational training, and mental health counseling—to empower prisoners for successful reentry into society and reduce rates of recidivism.
Rep. Gabbard said:
“The consequences of decades of a failed War on Drugs and policies focused on incarceration over rehabilitation has left generations of people ill-equipped to when they have done their time to move on with their lives. Our bill aims to curb the destructive cycle of recidivism that has plagued low-income and minority communities across our nation. It authorizes funding for educational programs, job training, and mental health counseling programs that are proven to lower recidivism rates. The FIRST STEP Act also limits mandatory minimums, fixes Good Time Credits, expands compassionate release for the elderly and terminally ill, and more.
“Today, we take the first in a long line of steps toward comprehensive criminal justice reform. Tomorrow, we must keep up the fight for greater sentencing reform and eradicate the private prison industry. There’s no overnight solution to our broken criminal justice system, but this bill makes long overdue progress that will make a lasting difference for so many Americans.”
Background: The FIRST STEP Act (H.R. 5682) would:
- Provide a Good Time Credit Fix to ensure that incarcerated individuals can earn the 54 days of good time credit per year that Congress intended, and not just the 47 days that BOP currently allows. It has been estimated by BOP and GAO that fixing this will lead to the release of roughly 4,000 prisoners and save $40 million the first fiscal year.
- Establish a Risk-Reduction System to match inmates to programs best-fitting their needs with the hopes of reducing recidivism over time. The program will be dynamic, statistically validated, and evaluated to ensure it doesn’t result in unwanted racial disparities in order to address concerns about prisoners of color being disproportionately impacted.
- Expand and Create Recidivism Risk Reduction Programming by authorizing $250 million over five years to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for the development and expansion of programming focused on skill-building, education and faith that has been shown to reduce recidivism. This program also aids in preparing prisoners for a successful and permanent transition back into their communities.
- Focus Resources on High and Medium Risk Prisoners to have the greatest impact on the prisoners who are at the greatest risk of recidivating
- Incentivize Participation with No Cap on Pre-Release Credit Earned, including allowing 10 days in pre-release custody for every 30 days of successful participation, with no cap on the pre-release credit that can be earned. Beyond prerelease custody, other incentives include increased phone and visitation periods, transfer to institutions closer to one’s release residence and additional policies which can include increased commissary spending, access to email, consideration of transfer and other incentives solicited from prisoners themselves.
- Offer Prerelease Custody by requiring BOP to transfer low and minimum risk prisoners to prerelease custody. The bill also would provide a pathway to petition the warden of the prison to grant prerelease custody as earned.
- Provide Independent and Congressional Oversight through a biannual GAO audit. It also requires the Attorney General to report annually to Congress on the activities implemented, the effectiveness of the programming, the recidivism rates, and savings. BOP also has Congressional oversight, specifically through the requirement to undertake significant data collection under the National Prisoner Statistics Program.
- Move People Closer to Home to within 500 driving miles of their families when an appropriate facility is available in order to lower the burdensome and often costly journey to visit loved ones in prison and to reduce recidivism.
- Ensure the Dignity for Women by instituting a ban on shackling pregnant and postpartum women, and requiring the BOP to provide sanitary napkins and tampons to incarcerated women for free.
- Require Provisions of IDs to reduce the collateral consequences of incarceration by allowing a quicker integration back into society, and create significant cost savings for BOP of approximately $19 million.
- Expand the Compassionate Release program by a 10 year requirement from the elderly release pilot program created by the Second Chance Act. This reduces the minimum age of prisoner eligibility for elderly release from 65 years of age to 60 years of age, and minimum time served of prisoner eligibility for elderly release from ¾ to ⅔. It also expands the program to all prisons—not just one. Finally, it allows the prisoner to seek relief under the program directly from a court so that administrative hurdles don’t hamper one’s ability to be released.
- Limits mandatory minimums by lowering the 20-year mandatory minimum to 15 years, and the current penalty for life would be reduced to 25 years.
- Expand the Safety Valve to allow judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum qualified low-level nonviolent drug offenders who cooperate with the government.
- Retroactive Application of Fair Sentencing Act by allowing individuals still serving sentences under the pre-FSA 100-to-1 crack-powder sentencing disparity to petition for sentence reductions.
- Reform Enhanced Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Prior Drug Offenses by reducing the second strike mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reduce the third strike mandatory minimum of life in prison to 25 years.
- Eliminate 924(c) “stacking” by prospectively clarifying that recidivist mandatory minimum enhancements for repeat offenders who use or possess a firearm during certain crimes apply only to final convictions so these enhancements cannot be “stacked”—or applied to conduct within the same indictment.