This week, Congress passed and the president signed into law the FIRST STEP Act – designed to improve our prisons, promote fairer sentencing and provide alternatives to incarceration. If you’re not yet using the acronym “CJR” in casual conversation, get in the know about this important issue and why it matters to you and your community, starting with these five things:
1) Basic fairness. The U.S. has about 4% of the world’s population. Yet incarcerates roughly one-fifth1 of the world’s prisoners. This glaring disparity is due in part to overcriminalization of nonviolent offenses.
2) Public safety. 95% of prison inmates will be released one day. Nearly 700,000 inmates returned to our communities this year alone2. And as many as 70%3 are expected to return to the criminal justice system in the next five years. Helping them return to their communities as productive citizens is in everyone's best interest.
3) Family integrity. One in 14 children4 has a parent who is incarcerated. Reforms that help deserving, lower-risk prisoners reunite with families sooner is important both to those families and our society.
4) American jobs. Our economy loses an estimated $87 billion5 in GDP every year by not employing those with criminal records. One hurdle these individuals face is landing a job, and they often disqualify themselves by marking a box that indicates a criminal record, regardless of their desire or capability to excel in that position. At Koch, an employer of 65,000 Americans, we “banned the box” on our employment forms. Other companies have made the same decision, because they have also realized the importance of second chances and the dignity of work.
5) It works. Since 2007, 35 states6 have reduced prison populations and crime rates at the same time. In Texas, where reforms like the FIRST STEP Act have been enacted, multiple prisons have been closed, $3 billion has been saved and crime rates are at low levels not seen since the 1960s.
With the FIRST STEP Act, millions more will now have greater opportunity to turn around their lives and contribute to their communities. After all, this is only the first step — but it is an important one.
1. International Centre for Prison Studies, “World Prison Population List,” 10th edition.
2. The National Reentry Resource Center, “Facts and Trends,” 2018.
3. National Institute of Justice, “Recidivism,” 2014.
4. Childtrends.org, “Parents Behind Bars,” 2015.
5. Center for Economic and Policy Research, “The Price We Pay,” 2016.
6. The Pew Charitable Trusts, “35 States Reform Criminal Justice Policies Through Justice Reinvestment,” 2018.