Americans deserve a presidential race based on substantive ideas. The United States faces real challenges, and they’re often not the ones on which the conservative base of the Republican Party is focused. Unfortunately, most Republican presidential candidates are resorting to reactionary rhetoric rather than offering viable solutions to complex policy issues. One of those issues is criminal justice reform.
Only Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina has emphasized his bipartisan work on criminal justice reform and defended the First Step Act on the campaign trail. Chris Christie also has an excellent record on the issue, going back to his time as New Jersey governor.
Other Republicans in the field, though, leave a lot to be desired. Some are entirely missing in action on the subject. Others are employing “tough on crime” rhetoric that comes with a hefty price tag and does little to reduce recidivism. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida voted for the FSA when it came through the House in May 2018 and signed the Florida First Step Act into state law, but he’s now in a race to the bottom on criminal justice. Taxpayers deserve better, especially when large budget deficits are a concern in Congress.
Passed and signed into law in December 2018, the bipartisan FSA made crucial reforms to the federal prison system and outdated sentencing laws. It was modeled after the reforms in dozens of states that focused on reducing recidivism to enhance public safety. It does this through earned time credits that most individuals in federal prison can earn and accrue for placement into pre-release custody or supervised release. Only those determined to be minimal or low risk can “cash-in” their time credits.
The early results of the FSA show the law is accomplishing its goal of lower recidivism rates.
A report by the Council on Criminal Justice found that recidivism rates for people released under the FSA are 37 percent lower than those in similar situations who were released before the law went into effect. Nearly 30,000 people have been helped by the FSA provisions. Only 12.4 percent have reoffended. Compare that astonishingly low rate with the “around 43 percent” recidivism rate that the federal Bureau of Prisons claims on its website.
The recidivism rates for minimal and low-risk individuals who benefitted from the FSA are 4.7 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively, compared to 6.4 percent and 21.7 percent of those released before the bill became law. Even those categorized as medium- and high-risk reoffenders have recidivism rates lower than those released before FSA became law. Medium- and high-risk prisoners can’t use time credits until they are assessed as minimal or low-risk.
Communities and taxpayers benefit when lawmakers adopt laws that reduce recidivism but demand accountability. Presidential hopefuls must expand the FSA and move it into new policy areas. Some bills have already been introduced that each presidential candidate could say they would support.
The EQUAL Act would eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine. It’s supported by the National District Attorneys Association and the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
The Kenneth P. Thompson Begin Again Act would allow for the expungement of simple drug possession offenses. That’s supported by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the National District Attorneys Association, and the Fraternal Order of Police. These are only a couple of examples. Other bills, like the Clean Slate Act and the Fresh Start Act, are worthy of support.
Presidential candidates have a responsibility to consider viable, evidence-based public policy solutions. The evidence is clear that the FSA is working, but it was a modest step forward. We’ve got to take the next steps to reduce recidivism and improve public safety.