Catholic groups expressed optimism at a criminal justice reform bill, as the “First Step Act” legislation makes its way through the U.S. Senate.
The full title of the bill is “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act.”
The bill, which has received bipartisan support, including from President Donald Trump and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), aims to reform the country’s prison system and better assist with integrating former prisoners into society after they have served their sentence.
Among other things, the bill will increase credits for good behavior and for participating in “evidence-based recidivism reduction programming”and other “productive programming.”
A total of $250 million would be authorized for the creation of educational, vocational and other skill-building programs for those in prison. Non-profit organizations, including faith-based groups, would be permitted to assist with the creation and implementation of these programs.
These provisions would only apply to prisoners who were incarcerated for certain crimes. Those in prison for violent offenses, such as assault of a spouse, arson, or sex trafficking, are not eligible to receive these earned time credits.
The First Step Act would also ban the controversial practice of shackling pregnant women, and require that feminine hygiene products be provided to female prisoners free-of-cost. The bill also mandates that prisoners be held no more than 500 driving miles away from their families, because evidence suggests that increased time with loved ones assists with societal reintegration.
Under the bill, prisoners deemed to be “low” or “minimum” risk would be instead be held in either a halfway house or home confinement. The minimum age for “compassionate release” would be lowered from 65 to 60.
Two Catholic organizations told CNA that they are optimistic about the bill and that they feel as though it is a way to improve the country’s criminal justice system.
“The First Step Act is exactly what it sounds like: an important first step by the federal government as part of our ongoing national conversation about draconian punishments, disparate sentencing, and collateral consequences,” Griffin Hardy, a spokesperson for anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, told CNA.
Hardy’s comments were echoed by the Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), an organization that promotes restorative justice and an end to the death penalty.
CMN “considers the First Step Act an important piece of legislation deserving of the collective attention of U.S. Catholics and all Americans”.
“The timing of the bill coincides with the recent release of the Catholic bishops pastoral letter against racism, which highlights the ways in which racial prejudice has become enshrined in our social structures, especially prisons,” they added.
This bill is a “modest but critical foundation” for confronting these issues, and “creates an opportunity for faithful Catholics to respond to the bishops’ call to ‘shape policies and institutions for the good of all.’”