WASHINGTON – After months of anticipation, a bipartisan bid at prison reform has passed out of committee with a vote of 25-5 and is headed to the House floor for a vote.
The FIRST STEP Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins, R-GA, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-NY, has the backing of both Christian groups and the White House.The bill has also united a litany of strange bed fellows including the liberal leaning prison reform group #cut50 and the Koch Brothers network.
The FIRST STEP Act aims to tackle recidivism rates by addressing the needs of prisoners before release.
“The mass incarceration epidemic is 50 years in the making. Fixing our broken criminal justice system will take an all-hands-on-deck effort from my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. The FIRST STEP Act is a significant step in the right direction,” said Jeffries.
Conservative group the Faith and Freedom Coalition also praised the passage.
“The research is conclusive, correctional education programs and vocational training work to reduce recidivism,” said Tim Head, Executive Director of Faith and Freedom Coalition.
“We implore Congress to enact the First Step Act as soon as possible so that we can make the public safer, save taxpayer dollars, strengthen families, and change lives for the better,” Head continued.
In an interview with CBN News, Rep. Collins explained the immense need for changes to the current system.
"The question is: Do we offer them a redemptive path, or are we simply a punitive, corrective path?" Rep. Collins told CBN News last week.
The legislation would "direct the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) to conduct risk and needs assessments for every offender upon sentencing, and then to offer individualized, evidence-based recidivism reduction plans to all inmates, without exception."
Those plans would include access to anger management, job training, mental health support and treatment for substance abuse.
Some prisoners would also be eligible for good time credit of up to 54 days off their sentence – an increase from the current 47 days.
According to Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry that supports the measure, nearly 50 percent of inmates released from prison will return within three years.
However, opponents on both sides of the aisle originally opposed the bill because it failed to address sentencing, believing you can't have one without the other. They want to see issues like the mandatory minimum sentences restricted.
Critics say mandatory minimum sentences strip judges of their right to allow the punishment to fit the criminal, not just the crime.
Collins says there are additional things he would like to see, too, but now is the time to act.
"It's a three-legged stool. We have the House, the Senate, and the president. We have a chance to make a difference here," he urged.
"If you're against this bill, I respect that. But then you go to the families of these individuals who are incarcerated and say, 'We don't want to start a program in which they can earn time and get recidivism and lower their possibility of mental health issues and lower their issues with drug dependency,'" he challenged.
While Collins sees people as the heart of the matter, he also believes it does not mean turning a blind eye to certain criminals.
"There are some people who need to be locked up," he said. "There are some people who have done such heinous acts that we're scared of them. Those need to have bed space."
For now, sentencing will have to wait.
"I don't know that we have the political unity, especially on the right, to get sentencing reform through," Alex Gudich Deputy Director of #cut50 told CBN News.
"Nor do we necessarily have the ability to get this White House to sign a bill that has any type of sentencing reform that we would be happy with, for now," he continued.
Still, #cut50, the mass incarceration reduction group co-founded by CNN Contributor Van Jones and human rights attorney Jessica Jackson Sloan, says it supports the bill even if it addresses only part of the issue.
"I think by breaking apart sentencing and prison reform, we are able to take a first step together, which will yield to more steps in the future," he explained. "That's why this bill was renamed the FIRST STEP Act."
Opponents also take issue with the narrow list of offenders. For example, the original list excluded people convicted of smaller drug offenses. Now, low-level drug offenders are eligible, while those directly tied to murder, terrorism, sex offenses or other violent crimes remain ineligible.
Gudich sees promise on that front as well.
White House Advisor Jared Kushner has been a pivitol player behind the scenes at the White House and on Capitol Hill garnering support for the measure.
According to Politico, Kushner spent time Monday evening rallying members of Congress.
White House Advisor Ivanka Trump also praised the bill.
#PrisonReform is critical to ensuring ex-offenders can successfully re-enter and prosper in our modern society. The passage of bipartisan legislation by the House Judiciary Committee this week is a positive first step we can ALL get behind! https://t.co/dc8nOudCpO
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) May 11, 2018
In late April, several members of the evangelical community, including Bishop Harry Jackson and evangelist Paula White, met with Kushner to hash out details of the reform plan.
The bill will rely on faith-based organizations to help with the reformation process.
Heather Rice-Minus – vice president of government affairs for Prison Fellowship – says faith, restoration, and justice are at the heart of the issue.
"The fact is, even if you don't have a loved one in prison, the scope of crime and incarceration is so great, it touches all of us," Rice-Minus told CBN News.
"Almost everyone in prison is coming home at some point – it's in everyone's best interest that they come home ready to give back to society at their God-given potential," she continued. "That preparation work needs to start at the day of arrest, not the day of release."
Collins' own experience, as both a pastor and the son of a Georgia State Trooper, helped to shape his view of the issue.
"Everybody that we meet has intrinsic value in God's eyes," Collins explained.