For the first time in close to a generation, President Donald J. Trump signed into law The First Step Act, a bipartisan piece of criminal justice and prison reform legislation that will have a substantial impact on prisoners held in the custody of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
The First Step Act will create incentivized programs that if done correctly should reduce recidivism, and give former offenders an opportunity to obtain real employment once released from custody.
It will stop the shackling of pregnant female prisoners giving birth, and it will provide more opportunity for the BOP to use its compassionate release program for the elderly and dying, eliminating their cost of confinement from the taxpayers.
In short, this piece of legislation should create the same results that many states have: reduced prison populations, reduced recidivism and crime in their communities, and ensuring that prison is a place where we put people that we are afraid of, not that we’re angry at.
For the legislators and advocates that fought to make this happen, they should not forget that The First Step Act is exactly that, the first step, of what should be many more reforms to come.
To further better our criminal justice system, the incoming U.S. Attorney General must take a serious look at the U.S. Justice Department, where prosecutors are solely judged and evaluated based on their conviction rates, and less so on the legitimacy of their cases and chargers brought. Although many if not most of the U.S. Attorneys around the country talk about criminal justice reform and the benefit it has on taxpayers, communities and families, there is still this insistence that first time nonviolent offenders must serve prison time, and there is rarely consideration given for alternative sentences, even though the defendant has already been personally, professionally, and financially annihilated. It’s like they talk a good game, but their tactics remain the same.
Federal prosecutors still use conspiracy and RICO charges to imprison low level drug offenders for decades; and they turn regulatory, civil, and administrative violations into felonious criminal conduct. Mens rea or criminal intent is still not a legal requirement in most federal statutes, which allows federal prosecutors to convict innocent people of federal crimes, even when they had no idea that they were doing anything wrong.
Selective and political prosecutions are increasing at alarming rates, and our legislators have mastered the ability to weaponize the Justice Department against their opposition and critics, and there is no accountability to ensure that U.S. citizens aren’t selectively and politically targeted as is done in China, Venezuela, and Russia.
There is no great threat to a sovereign Republic than a government that fails to ensure its citizens freedoms and liberty, as aggressively as it pursues ‘justice,’ and these days we continue to see a Justice Department solely targeting Americans for selective and political reasons.
The incoming Attorney General must also appoint a new BOP Director — one from the outside and not one of the old guard of the BOP.
There must be a major culture change in the BOP to ensure that there is top-to-bottom accountability, with enhanced training, and the establishment of performance measures to meet the department’s goals and objectives, and mechanisms instituted to address the department’s corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse, that is perhaps the worst in American government.
If the BOP intends to truly incentivize prisoner’s good behavior through programs that will teach them life and vocational skills, work ethic and societal values, those programs must be real… must start on the inside, and give them something to look forward to on the outside. A felony conviction is like a black cloud that has a negative impact on you until the day you die, so it is essential that employment possibilities, post incarceration, are real.
We should not be teaching prisoners how to become a real estate agent, when in most states a convicted felon cannot get a real estate license. Don’t teach them how to be a tax preparer, or accountant, because that conviction will again, prevent them from obtaining that work. Getting their high school diploma or bachelor’s degree will do little to help them obtain employment on the outside, although it is encouraged, however the reality is that thousands of offenders leave prison with a high school diploma, bachelors', and some masters', but cannot find work because they are convicted felon.
Today we have more than 500,000 vacant positions nationwide — for tractor-trailer drivers. That’s a job that former offenders can obtain with the right training, and starting salaries can be as high as $60 - $80 thousand. There’s nothing stopping them from getting an HVAC employment with the right training, or automotive repair and restoration as well. These are all things that former offenders can do, with a felony conviction on the record, if they have the right training, certification, and work ethic, which can be taught on the inside, and something the BOP should consider.
Now that we’ve gotten through the First Step Act, let’s move on to the next act… and then the next.
Real criminal justice and prison reform isn’t that hard, with the right leadership, management, and accountability. But to start, if would be far more doable if our legislators — those that write the laws of our land — knew exactly what the inside of a prison looked like and how they are run. If they knew what I know, there would be anger and outrage, and there would be change.
Let’s get angry and let’s make change… for the betterment of our prisons, our communities, our families, and our country.
As New York City’s 40th Police Commissioner, Bernard Kerik was in command of the NYPD on September 11, 2001, and responsible for the city’s response, rescue, recovery, and the investigative efforts of the most substantial terror attack in world history. His 35-year career has been recognized in more than 100 awards for meritorious and heroic service, including a presidential commendation for heroism by President Ronald Reagan, two Distinguished Service Awards from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, The Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and an appointment as Honorary Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
The writer is author of the following: "The Grave Above the Grave," "From Jailer to Jailed," and "The Lost Son, A Life in Pursuit of Justice."