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Pa. senators hold the key to federal prison reform | Opinion

Senators Toomey and Casey should pass the FIRST STEP Act.

Sen. Bob Casey, left, and Sen. Pat Toomey.
Sen. Bob Casey, left, and Sen. Pat Toomey.Read moreAP (custom credit)

Pennsylvania has been a leader in bipartisan criminal justice reform, having enacted “Clean Slate” legislation this year that will seal certain types of criminal records for those who have served their time and proved they are making the most of their second chance. Now it’s time for the commonwealth’s senators to show that same kind of leadership in Washington.

Overwhelmingly popular prison and sentencing reform legislation is hanging by a thread in the U.S. Senate. As Congress races toward wrapping up business for the year, the First Step Act should be a priority. And Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey can help make that happen.

From finding a job to rebuilding their families, formerly incarcerated men and women face countless obstacles to successful reentry. The legislation would create programs that give them the tools they need to contribute to their communities — our communities — upon release.

The measure would allow offenders who participate successfully in job training and substance abuse programs, and who aren’t a threat to public safety, to earn credit toward pre-release custody at non-prison facilities such as halfway houses or home confinement. Earned time is just that — earned — and those with credits continue to serve their sentences in alternative settings.

Most federal prisoners — and there are more than 10,000 housed in Pennsylvania — could earn up to 54 days of credit per year only if they “display exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations." The most serious and violent offenses bar inmates from participating. And the final call rests with the people in charge of the prisons.

Among those who should know is Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators and a strong supporter of the bill.

So, the very people who are running our prisons are arguing that the proven reforms in the First Step Act would reduce crime, save taxpayers money, and provide second chances to those who have paid their debt to society.

Pie-in-the-sky thinking? Anything but. We know because the federal legislation incorporates many of the reforms that have already been successful in several states, including Pennsylvania.

Reams of research coupled with real-world examples prove that these kinds of educational programs, vocational training, and mental health and substance abuse treatment can significantly reduce recidivism rates.

Pennsylvania adopted similar evidence-based reforms in 2012, and we have seen both crime and incarceration rates fall, making us safer and saving us money at the same time.

More than two million people are behind bars in the American criminal justice system. Almost all of them will eventually be freed. It is in no one’s interest that they are ill-equipped to deal with that freedom when it comes.

The American people understand this. That’s why an estimated 70 percent of them support reforming the system to focus on rehabilitation.

In addition to Wetzel, a wide array of law enforcement groups have united behind the bill. The Fraternal Order of Police called it “a bill that will make our streets and neighborhoods safer.” Groups including the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the Due Process Institute have called it “a significant step to advance justice."

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill by a wide margin in May. President Trump has endorsed it. But, as the days dwindle down to a precious few, the Senate has yet to act. Sens. Toomey and Casey should shine Pennsylvania’s light on Congress. It is unconscionable that we must go another day wasting so much human potential and throwing away taxpayer dollars on a status quo, revolving-door system that offers no hope to those in it or paying for it.

Beth Anne Mumford is Pennsylvania state director of Americans for Prosperity.