The First Step Act
The latest federal prison reform initiative the First Step Act (aka Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act), has few good attributes like most prisoner reentry programs.
The good parts of the Act require inmates to be closer to their families to make visitation easier. It’s humane, and it’s the right thing to do. By doing so, parents incarcerated are able to see their children more frequently which reduces reunification issues after release. The Act also allows home confinement for low-risk prisoners which will reduce some taxpayer burden. More non-violent terminally ill inmates will be eligible for compassionate releases which allows inmates to come home and be with family prior to their deaths.
But the First Step Act, like most prison reentry initiatives have great intentions, but they aren’t really serious about getting ex-offenders back into society.
A person needs a few basic things to survive here in America, and that’s food, safe shelter, education/retraining/skill/trade, a means to sustain him/her self (a job), transportation, substance abuse counseling, support groups, family reunification assistance, and moral/social supports from family, friends, and the community which aid in successfully reentry.
Because each state, county, and local community is different, the supports necessary to aid in an ex-offender’s reentry may differ. Most communities don’t have real reentry efforts. They offer only piecemeal solutions (i.e. faith-based housing, and substance abuse recovery supports with no living wage opportunities), with little or no community coordinated effort to support ex-offender reentry.
We love locking people up in our broken systems (i.e. foster care, juvenile detention, jail, prison, poorly operated school) but we never want to deal with the impact of incarceration. We just lock people up, throw away the key, and forget about our fellow citizens. That’s the un-American way.
Just ask any ex-offender trying to reenter local communities. They aren’t receiving employment opportunities and other supports necessary to secure and maintain skills or trades enabling them to join the workforce. Without meaningful interventions, ex-offenders lose all hope. Taxpayers lose too.
The First Step Act Helps Few Prisoners
The First Step Act is supposed to develop policies for the warden of each prison of the Bureau of Prisons to enter partnerships (subject to the availability of appropriations) with nonprofit and other private organizations, including faith-based, art, and community-based organizations that will deliver recidivism reduction programming on a paid or volunteer basis, Institutions of higher education (as defined in section 101 of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1001) that will deliver instruction on a paid or volunteer basis, and private entities that will deliver vocational training and certifications; provide equipment to facilitate vocational training or employment opportunities for prisoners; employ prisoners; or assist prisoners in pre-release custody or supervised release in finding employment. Lots of training happens in this act as you can see.
Additionally, industry-sponsored organizations are supposed to deliver workforce development and training, on a paid or volunteer basis. More training.
The one thing the First Step Act lacks are guaranteed employment opportunities in communities outside of the prison system. For example, the Act (EC. 405.) proposes expanding inmate employment through Federal prison industries.
Why would ex-offenders want to work in federal prison industries post release? Why wouldn’t the government try to employ ex-inmates some place else? What about ex-offenders who weren’t in federal prisons doing federal time for federal crimes? Why weren’t there any interventions linked to other labor sectors? Why waste someone’s time with training if they cannot get a job? Our systems need to change.
If you you listen to the politicians puff this legislation, it sounds great. If you read it and use your common sense, it’s a bunch of bull. Most ex-offenders already have access to training thanks to a bill passed by President Obama in 2016. The Department of Education selected 67 colleges and universities to partner with more than 100 Federal and state correctional institutions to enroll around 12,000 incarcerated students in educational and training programs. Selected schools offered classroom-based instruction, online education, or a hybrid of both at corrections facilities; the vast majority of selected schools were public two- and four-year institutions.
The government was already offering training to ex-offenders nationwide. Yet again, the Trump Administration and candidates running for President in 2020 who co-signed this bill did something that had already been done. They reinvented the wheel. Our politicians do what they do best — fleece their sheep.
With all the First Step Act’s hype, politicians forgot to emphasize the bill only supports federal inmates. From 2016 to 2017, there were 1,508,129 prisoners incarcerated in America. While there were only 189,192 prisoners in federal prisons across the country, there were 1,318,937 prisoners in state prisons and jails nationwide.
The First Step Act does little to aid most inmates and future ex-offenders. The Act was another political ploy for all politicians to attach their names to. Most average Joes in America will not take the time to examine what this Act does to improve the lives of ex-offenders, their families, and their communities. Recidivism negatively impacts us all. We need to care, we’re all losing. Reducing barriers for ex-offenders reduces recidivism.
Why The First Step Act Doesn’t Go Far Enough
Because most people incarcerated in America are imprisoned in state prisons, not federal jails, the Act won’t help state ex-offenders. The Act places no requirements on employers public or private sector employers.
No matter what types of interventions the federal government suggests, if they will not force employers to stop discriminating against people with past criminal convictions, monitor applications submitted, interviews, job offers, and hires to ensure employers aren’t locking ex-offenders out of the workforce, the efforts are a bunch of cow patties.
There is no need to spend more taxpayer money training ex-offenders if we will not force employers to hire retrained ex-offenders. Right now as it stands, employers can choose without penalty not to hire ex-offenders. Employment is the biggest obstacle for all ex-offenders. We need ex-offenders working. If they don’t work, we taxpayers subsidize their existence.
How do we subsidize them you ask?
You and I subsidize their existence when their children receive public assistance because they can’t pay child support or they can’t help the primary caretakers care for their own children. We pay for their family’s getting vouchers to subsidize their housing. We pay when ex-offenders go to shelters. Your donations care for them, a lot. We pay if they go back to local jails and prisons. We pay anytime they receive food stamps (in states that allow them to receive public help). Many states don’t allow felons to use public assistance to get back onto their feet.
We taxpayers pay a price any time we deprive ex-offenders of the opportunity to return to society. We force them to commit crimes of desperation to survive. That’s inhumane. It’s unnecessary. And it’s unfair.
I often wonder why is it that some criminals, in particular White-collar and military criminals get second chances, but others without the titles and connections do not? I can think of a handful of convicted criminals given second chances. People like Martha Stewart, Michael Vick Jeffrey Epstein, Scooter Libby, General Petraeus, Robert Downey Jr., Tim Allen, Jack Abramoff, and Michael Milken just to name a few. In America, money guarantees second chances.
All Ex-Inmates Deserve a Second Chance and a Fair Shot
If ex-offenders cannot work, they can’t pay restitution, they can’t repay fines, they can’t pay child support, and they can’t take care of their basic needs. Ex-offenders will be forced to take part in the underground economy, which sends the right back to the place that is required to help them stay on the streets.
Every ex-offender deserves a fair shot. We need to do a better job of holding our lawmakers accountable, demanding they do more to hold employers accountable. Lawmakers could start by outlawing discrimination for criminal convictions and create some oversight and testing to ensure they are adhering to the law. We desperately need systemic changes in our labor systems to ensure citizens (yes American criminals are still citizens with rights). The government could test employers in the same way they test real estate companies to ensure they are not discriminating against minority populations (i. e. gay couples, Blacks, Hispanics, poor people, etc., domestic violence victims, etc.).
The playing field is unequal. I write about it all the time. America does a great job at putting its foot on a man’s neck and never letting go. It’s time we stop being so punitive and help ex-offenders in meaningful ways.
Amendment VIII of our Bill of Rights says excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. Not being able to care for yourself after getting out of jail or prison is cruel and unusual punishment. Ex-offenders are being deprived of life, liberty, or property when they cannot take part in the legal economy.
The First Step Act is not a step at all. It’s running in place. It accomplishes nothing. The Act is nothing more than words that carry no weight, because much like racism, you can’t legislate employment bias away. People in power will always find new ways to discriminate against Americans without power like ex-offenders and certain minorities. We need to do more for ex-offenders, because we all break laws at some point in our lives.
If you get extra change at the grocery store and don’t return it, you stole. If you speed in your car, you break the law. You run red lights; you break the law. Do you travel to other countries to engage in prostitution, you break the law. Cheat on your taxes, you my friend break the law. Do you eat grapes in the store before you make it to check out without paying for them, you stole grapes. The only difference between you and your crime and the crime of the ex-offender is they got caught, and you didn’t. Maybe your crime didn’t carry as much weight as their crime, but you’re still a criminal.
It’s time we call local, state, and federal politicians on their bullshit. They aren’t really doing anything to help ex-offenders. Most online ex-offender groups I partake in have over-educated men and women with no employment opportunities, no seed money to start entrepreneurial endeavors and no hope.
We need to give them hope. The First Step Act isn’t it. Call your legislators, make them go back to the drawing board, or vote them out of office for fleecing us yet again. Most ex-offenders in most states can’t vote even after they’ve completed all of their sentencing obligations. It’s up to the rest of us to speak up for them. The only way things will get better in America for ex-offenders is if we hold elected officials accountable. Naming and shaming is what it will take. Voting them out of office too. Liars and bullshitters shouldn’t be rewarded with a promotion.
We they know we know better, maybe they’ll do better. People returning to society are depending on us. Watch When They See Us. Think about your own kids. Do the right thing.
Let’s help make our communities safer. Give a hand, vote, speak up and help a fellow man (or woman).
©2019 Marley K. All rights reserved.