Support The FIRST STEP Act For Criminal Justice Reform

Seize The Opportunity For A First Step Towards Criminal Justice Reform

The FIRST STEP Act, while limited in scope, has the potential to set a precedent for criminal justice reform across the United States.

HASmith
HASmith
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It's no secret that the United States' criminal justice system is a mess. Mass incarceration continues to fester throughout the system as a result of harsh sentencing laws that in many cases are especially punitive towards minorities, high rates of recidivism due to a lack of resources to help former inmates transition back into society, and a lack of legislation fix the flaws in the system to name just a few reasons.

But now, as the current 115th Congress enters its final few days of legislative work in Washington, there is an opportunity to make meaningful reforms to the American criminal justice system: the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person (or FIRST STEP) Act. In its current form, the bill would allocate funding to increase the number of vocational training and rehabilitation programs in federal prisons as well as make it easier for inmates in federal prisons to earn more "good time" credits that would qualify them for early release. If passed, it would have immediate effects on the status of thousands of inmates' prison sentences.

The bill is also remarkable because it has a great deal of bipartisan support; numerous Democrats and Republicans are listed as sponsors, and the House of Representatives passed their form of the bill last May by a 360-59 margin. In an even more surprising turn of events, President Donald Trump announced earlier in the fall that he would approve the bill - an unusual move for somebody who ran on a tough-on-crime platform in the 2016 election - if it made it to his desk (a result that would require the bill's Senate form to pass in the chamber and be reconciled with the House's version). Trump's stance on the bill puts him on the same side as a number of organizations favoring criminal justice reform such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Evidently, the bill has a wide appeal, but there are forces that could still stop this much-needed criminal justice legislation in the Senate. One powerful threat to the bill's passage is the possibility that it will not even reach the Senate floor for a vote as the chamber scrambles to address other legislation before Congress adjourns for the year. The FIRST STEP Act simply does not hold a high priority for some Senators.

Additionally, some Senate Republicans such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas have voiced heated opposition to the bill on the grounds that it treated some inmates too leniently by allowing them to be released early (a claim Senate Republicans who sponsored the bill reject, citing restrictions that allow only those who committed lower-level offenses to partake in sentence-reducing programs). On the other hand, some progressives have been hesitant to support the bill because they argue that it does not go far enough in addressing sentencing reform and that the sentence-reducing programs outlined in the bill would not accessible to enough inmates.

It is true that the bill will directly affect only a small portion of the federal prison population (which in itself makes up only a fraction of the number of incarcerated people in the United States, the rest imprisoned mostly in state or county facilities). It is also true that the bill mainly targets the symptoms of mass incarceration (such as inmate recidivism and overcrowding in prisons) and not the root causes (excessively harsh sentencing laws for low-level offenders); in fact, only the Senate version of the bill mentions anything about loosening of minimum sentencing laws, as the House version does not. Yet, despite these shortcomings, advocates for criminal justice reform should still support the FIRST STEP Act because it still has the potential to help thousands of inmates currently in federal prisons.

If passed, the bill would help inmates convicted of minor offenses achieve early release from prison by increasing the number of credits counting towards prison sentence reduction they could earn while in prison; it would also assist them with the transition back into society through job-training programs, which the bill incentivizes inmates to use since the programs count towards early-release credits and are shown to decrease recidivism rates by enabling former inmates to gain at least some stability once they are released. Admittedly, these reforms are fairly mild when compared to the enormity of flaws within America's justice system, but it is better to seize the opportunity to help at least a small fraction of America's incarcerated population re-achieve independence than to help none at all. Great reforms do not take place overnight; most have to start small.

It should also be noted that FIRST STEP does not preclude the possibility of more expansive criminal justice reform, but rather (as its name implies) lays the groundwork for Congress to pursue more solutions in the future. A bipartisan legislative victory in criminal justice reform could incentivize both Congress and the President focus more attention on the issue in a time when partisan gridlock is dominant in Washington.

Given both the immediate opportunity to improve the lives of many current inmates and the chance to start a long-term legislative push for criminal justice reform, the FIRST STEP act needs to be prioritized as it makes its journey through the Senate. The bill is small but could have lasting consequences if those who wish to change the United States' criminal justice system for the better push to make it a national priority.

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Austin Alexander Burridge, Volunteer Advocate, Shares 3 Great Reasons to Volunteer and Help Others

Austin Alexander Burridge is an avid academic who studies Environmental Science at Winona State University and believes that work in the service of others is a key pillar to personal development.

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Sometimes it's easy for someone to adopt a "me, me, me" attitude. While focusing on oneself, a person may feel nice in the moment, but serving and helping others will bring lasting benefits. While there are many great reasons to serve and help others, there are three universal truths that resonate with volunteers around the globe.

Austin Alexander Burridge's 3 Reasons to Volunteer:

1. Accomplishment

Often, people fall into a trap of focusing on themselves when they are feeling down. Maybe someone did not get a job they wanted. Or perhaps a person gets dumped by an expected lifelong companion. Maybe someone feels they have underachieved after looking at Facebook and seeing great things a high school classmate has accomplished. When feeling down, helping others is a proven way to improve one's mood and attitude, and it can provide a sense of pride and accomplishment. The act of giving to those in need is an inherently good action and leaves people with a wonderful feeling of joy.

2. Gratitude

One can become more appreciative of life by serving others that have less. Whether volunteering at a soup kitchen, visiting the elderly at an assisted living center, or helping families after a natural disaster, service enables people to be grateful for what they have. Seeing people who have fewer advantages, especially those who are spirited and thankful for small things, allows one to realize just how fortunate he/she is in life.

3. Friendships

Volunteering is a great way to build meaningful friendships, not only with other volunteers but also with those who are served. One of the most profound and fascinating aspects of these relationships is how volunteers will learn from those served and vice versa. As these special bonds are built, they lead to impactful connections that last for years to come.

Of course, these are just a few reasons to volunteer and serve others. One can never go wrong by helping others as opposed to merely focusing on oneself. Volunteering invariably and inevitably contributes to personal growth, development, and satisfaction.

About Austin Alexander Burridge: Helping others has been of paramount importance to Austin, and as a part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), Austin gave back to the community around him. He also has participated in annual peanut butter drives, The Minnesota Sandwich Project for the Homeless and collected canned goods for local food shelters. Additionally, Austin has a passion for the environment, which he pursued when visiting the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, and the Amazon Rain Forest while studying at the School of Environment Studies, which investigates ecological systems and their sustainability

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Saying You "Don't Take Political Stances" IS A Political Stance

All you're doing by saying this is revealing your privilege to not care politically, and here's why that's a problem.

bethkrat
bethkrat
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I'm sure all of us know at least one person who refuses to engage in political discussions - sure, you can make the argument that there is a time and a place to bring up the political happenings of our world today, but you can't possibly ignore it all the time. You bring up the last ridiculous tweet our president sent or you try to discuss your feelings on the new reproductive regulation bills that are rising throughout the states, and they find any excuse to dip out as quickly as possible. They say I don't talk about politics, or I'm apolitical. Well everyone, I'm here to tell you why that's complete bullsh*t.

Many people don't have the luxury and privilege of ignoring the political climate and sitting complacent while terrible things happen in our country. So many issues remain a constant battle for so many, be it the systematic racism that persists in nearly every aspect of our society, the fact that Flint still doesn't have clean water, the thousands of children that have been killed due to gun violence, those drowning in debt from unreasonable medical bills, kids fighting for their rights as citizens while their families are deported and separated from them... you get the point. So many people have to fight every single day because they don't have any other choice. If you have the ability to say that you just don't want to have anything to do with politics, it's because you aren't affected by any failing systems. You have a privilege and it is important to recognize it.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."

We recognize that bad people exist in this world, and we recognize that they bring forth the systems that fail so many people every single day, but what is even more important to recognize are the silent majority - the people who, by engaging in neutrality, enable and purvey the side of the oppressors by doing nothing for their brothers and sisters on the front lines.

Maybe we think being neutral and not causing conflict is supposed to be about peacekeeping and in some way benefits the political discussion if we don't try to argue. But if we don't call out those who purvey failing systems, even if it's our best friend who says something homophobic, even if it's our representatives who support bills like the abortion ban in Alabama, even if it's our president who denies the fact that climate change is killing our planet faster than we can hope to reverse it, do we not, in essence, by all accounts of technicality side with those pushing the issues forward? If we let our best friend get away with saying something homophobic, will he ever start to change his ways, or will he ever be forced to realize that what he's said isn't something that we can just brush aside? If we let our representatives get away with ratifying abortion bans, how far will the laws go until women have no safe and reasonable control over their own bodily decisions? If we let our president continue to deny climate change, will we not lose our ability to live on this planet by choosing to do nothing?

We cannot pander to people who think that being neutral in times of injustice is a reasonable stance to take. We cannot have sympathy for people who decide they don't want to care about the political climate we're in today. Your attempts at avoiding conflict only make the conflict worse - your silence in this aspect is deafening. You've given ammunition for the oppressors who take your silence and apathy and continue to carry forth their oppression. If you want to be a good person, you need to suck it up and take a stand, or else nothing is going to change. We need to raise the voices of those who struggle to be heard by giving them the support they need to succeed against the opposition.

With all this in mind, just remember for the next time someone tells you that they're apolitical: you know exactly which side they're on.

bethkrat
bethkrat

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