Nationwide prison reform can seem like a distant mountain that we will never reach. At times, the sheer amount of effort required discourages us. We grow weary before we even begin. But we cannot let ourselves be held in place by the enormity of our undertaking.
The First Step Act, which was signed by the President just before Christmas, offers a starting point for a reform that is generations in the making. It is a small but necessary step toward addressing the deep-rooted issues in our country’s criminal justice system.
According to a recent study from Cornell University, half of the adults in America have a family member who is or was incarcerated. This figure is even higher in low-income and inner-city communities. The First Step Act, which calls for relocating prisoners closer to their families and expanding the federal safety valve exception to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, is an important signal to incarcerated people and their families that change is coming.
The act also calls for increased funding for vocational and rehabilitative programs — $50 million per year over the next five years — which will create greater access to education for incarcerated people seeking to prepare for success following their release. Education programs have been shown to reduce the risk of recidivism, and the bill takes this a step further by allowing certain prisoners to accumulate “earned time credits” — up to 15 days for every 30 days of completed programming. Prisoners can then cash in their credits, with prison warden approval, for early placement in pre-release custody, such as a halfway house or home confinement.
Avenues such as this allow incarcerated people to see the direct impact of their efforts to improve their situation. This can restore a sense of agency to people who feel that nothing in their life is under their control. Personal agency is a powerful tool that helps people create positive change for themselves and their communities.
My team at the Center for Advancing Opportunity has seen firsthand how education and empowerment can improve lives. Our organization invests in research and education initiatives that produce research-driven solutions to address some of the most pressing issues in the country, including education, entrepreneurship and prison reform.
Of course, we cannot neglect the underlying factors that contribute to mass incarceration, including unemployment, health problems, food insecurity and low-quality education. It is true that the First Step Act does not directly address these problems. But to write off the legislation altogether is to discount its potential impact on tens of thousands of people in prison today who are demonstrating their willingness and ability to contribute to their communities.
We have a great opportunity in front of us as a country. The administration’s focus on this issue has brought it to the forefront of the national conversation. The attention and discussion have planted seeds that could help build support and spark a larger movement.
We can choose to move toward of our goal of nationwide prison reform, or we can remain motionless. We can choose to play political games and gamble with the lives of people who are working for a second chance, or we can take the first step toward the future we want to create.
This is truly a journey of a thousand miles. The First Step Act will not solve every problem in our criminal justice system. But every journey starts with the first step. As a nation, we must keep moving forward, step by step, to build on the momentum that this policy creates.
Gerard Robinson is the executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity (CAO), a Washington, D.C.-based research and education initiative created by a partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the Charles Koch Foundation, and Koch Industries.