The world is rightly mourning the passing last Friday of George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States.
One of the most heartfelt encomiums in his honor was penned by America’s 42nd president, Bill Clinton—with whom President Bush forged a deep friendship despite the sting of losing the presidency to him. President Clinton wrote, “Given what politics looks like in America and around the world today, it’s easy to sigh and say George H.W. Bush belonged to an era that is gone and never coming back … I know what he would say: ‘Nonsense. It’s your duty to get that America back.’”
In the spirit of this admonishment, let us all celebrate one issue that—despite having divided Republicans and Democrats for generations—has grittily emerged as a beacon of bipartisan consensus where the pressing national interest can eclipse politics: crime.
Sitting before the U.S. Senate is the First Step Act, which would reform federal prisons: from being places that only punish convicted criminals to being places that also build opportunity for rehabilitation. In May, the House passed this bill by the substantial margin of 360-59. Now before the Senate, it is supported by a broad coalition of senators that runs from conservative Republicans like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to liberal Democrats like Patrick Leahy of Vermont. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Trump has endorsed the bill; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been its chief White House advocate. Kushner has shared that his interest in the topic is deeply personal: his father spent a year in prison for tax evasion, witness tampering, and making illegal campaign contributions.
The backdrop to the First Step Act is the harrowing state of criminal justice in the United States. In 2016, there were approximately 6.6 million people under “correctional supervision”—meaning in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole. While that is about 700,000 fewer than in 2007, it’s still a bracing number. In 1980, only 1.8 million people were in America’s correctional system.
Many factors have driven this increase, and the First Step Act would address one of them: it is excruciatingly difficult for those who have spent time in the criminal justice system to ever truly escape it. As supporters of the First Step Act have written, “Currently, the federal prison system is failing to achieve its purpose—rehabilitation—and instead rips people away from their families, leaves them with fewer opportunities than when they entered into the system, and ultimately decreases public safety.” Symptomatic of this failure at rehabilitation is America’s high rate of recidivism: according to the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, an astonishing more than two out of three of those released from state prisons are arrested again within three years.
It is excruciatingly difficult for those who have spent time in the criminal justice system to ever truly escape it.
To begin to remedy this, the architects of First Step are advancing a number of changes to America’s prison policy. For example, the Act will incentivize prisoners to enroll in education and training programs that will make them more employable once released from incarceration. There are also subtle reforms that could have very large impacts. First Step mandates that individuals be housed in prisons within 500 driving miles of family members, consistent with evidence that regular family contact improves the behavior of prisoners. And it mandates that when released from prison, individuals be provided a government identification card. Obtaining such ID cards is routine for most people but can be a major stumbling block for ex-prisoners trying to integrate back into society.
To be sure, the First Step Act would not be a panacea. It would apply only to people serving time in federal prisons, which house only about 10 percent of all prisoners, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. And the legislation would do little to reduce America’s incarceration rate—a rate that is among the world’s highest (e.g., over three times higher than Europe’s as of a few years ago, according to a Washington Post article).
All these caveats granted, one should not overlook the massive costs of having so many people ensnared in the criminal justice system. Housing so many prisoners, employing all the necessary guards, and maintaining prison facilities is estimated to be an annual expense of $81 billion. Add to this the economic and social cost of removing so many people from the labor force and from the many human and civic benefits of engaging with society. One of the authors of a 2016 study from Washington University in St. Louis concluded that “for every dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional ten dollars in social costs.” And one rigorous study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, shows that juvenile incarceration reduces the likelihood of completing high school and greatly increases the likelihood of adult incarceration.
In New Orleans on August 18, 1988, George H.W. Bush received the Republican Party’s nomination for president. In his acceptance speech that night, presidential-nominee Bush declared that “I want a kinder and gentler nation.” What a fitting tribute to his aspiration it would be to have the First Step Act become law soon.