Skip to content

A First Step in a Long Journey to Criminal Justice Reform

The long-awaited passage of two major criminal justice laws is just the beginning of a long road in corrections reform. Next, we must address education and skills development while people are still incarcerated.

April 29, 2019

At a Glance

The long-awaited passage of two major criminal justice laws is just the beginning of a long road in corrections reform. Next, we must address education and skills development while people are still incarcerated.

After decades of advocacy and evidence of the abuses of the criminal justice system, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to reform the federal prison system.

The FirstStep Act passed in December amid a good deal of celebrity fanfare, and its passage was not without controversy. It’s a jumble of compromises,but there are provisions that begin to address longstanding injustices. Amongother things, the First Step Act includes provisions to do the following:

  • Retroactively reduce the disparity in drug sentences involving crack or powder cocaine.
  • Curb mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, shrink the length of mandated prison terms, and expand judicial discretion in cases where people have limited criminal histories (previously, that “safety valve” was only available for nonviolent drug offenders with no criminal history).
  • Enforce existing rules, like the guideline that states that inmates must be placed within 500 driving miles of their homes or families, and the requirement that obliges the Federal Bureau of Prisons to match people with appropriate rehabilitative services.
  • Increase federal funding for education and training services and make it easier for program providers to access facilities to deliver programming.

Meanwhile, the long overdue reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA) passed under the radar. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), this law strengthens protections for juvenile offenders and enforces requirements to track data and redress racial bias in the juvenile system. According to the NCSL blog, the new law will do the following:

2018 Voices of Reentry Series
People making good on second chances
Their Stories
  • Give state and local leaders greater flexibility to improve prevention services and meet the needs of delinquent youth.
  • Prioritize evidence-based strategies for youth interventions, including funding for tutoring, mental health, and drug and alcohol programs targeting youth and children.
  • Prohibit states from holding children in adult jails, even if they are charged with adult crimes.
  • Require states that receive federal funding to track data and create plans to eliminate racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.
  • Ban the shackling of pregnant women during delivery.

People who leave prison with skills and training are less likely to re-offend and more likely to secure employment.

While we have miles to go before we create an equitable system that ends mass incarceration and reimagines prison, the bipartisan support for these two pieces of legislation maintains the momentum for the long journey ahead.

Making a Successful Reentry

It’s critical that we create programs that substantially reduce the number of people who are incarcerated and the inequity of the prison system. We must also address structural barriers to education and employment that people face after they leave prison. Specifically, this means putting more emphasis on education and skills development while individuals are still in prison to prepare them for meaningful employment after they are released.Efforts such as those will reduce recidivism and make good on the commitment to second chances.

The First Step Act allows people to receive “earned time credits” by participating in vocational and rehabilitative programs while they are in prison. This approach is supported by recidivism-reduction partnerships, which involve prisons, nonprofit organizations, institutions of higher education, and private entities. These partnerships typically deliver vocational training and certification, provide equipment to facilitate training or employment opportunities, or assist individuals in entering pre-release custody or supervised release to find employment. Employers may also enter into partnerships with prisons to provide workforce development programming or offer training to inmates on a paid or volunteer basis.

When individuals qualify for earned time credits, they become eligible for early release, either to halfway houses or home confinement. This effort could help mitigate prison overcrowding and could also improve job opportunities for individuals after they are released. People who leave prison with skills and training are less likely to re-offend and more likely to secure employment.

JFF supports programs and strategies, like those mentioned above, that prepare individuals for family-supporting careers. We believe that educational opportunities, along with holistic services, are essential for economic mobility—enabling those released from prison to gain in-demand skills and overcome systemic barriers to  reentry. Making these types of investments “behind the walls” pays off when people are released from incarceration.

JFF grantees in the Improved Reentry Education project, who taught and trained people in corrections, have remarkable stories to tell. They saw people who had dropped out of high school become college graduates, end a lifetime of addiction to secure employment in the skilled trades, reconnect with family, and achieve professional goals beyond what they ever expected. And they saw participants who changed their mindsets: Instead of just looking for jobs, they were committed to embarking on careers, and instead of just trying to stay out of jail, they were making long-term plans for the future.

Out of everything I did while I was [in prison], the [technical education] classes offered have helped me the most.

Dorothy Gonzalez, graduate of a training program at Topeka Correctional Facility (see Dorothy's story in the 2017 Voices of Reentry series)

The First Step Act and the reauthorized JJDPA are steps in the right direction for reducing mass incarceration. Provisions also require investments that can pay off for reentry. JFF joins the chorus of advocates, policymakers, and men and women affected by corrections and living in reentry to urge federal and state policymakers to accelerate the pace of reform. We can’t stop now.

Voices of Reentry: It's Never Too Late For Change
Dorothy Gonzales got her GED in 2012, on her49th birthday.
Read Dorothy's Story

Related Content

Impact Story

Improved Reentry Education

Rebuilding a life after prison is hard. JFF supports education and training programs that increase success for people returning to their communities after time behind bars. Rebuilding a life after prison is hard. JFF supports…

April 18, 2018

2017: Voices of Reentry

Voices of Reentry is a series profiling people who are making good on second chances after they return to society from incarceration. Voices of Reentry is a series of profiles of people making good on…

May 29, 2018

Supporting Second Chances: 3 Priorities to Ease Prisoner Reentry

More than 2 million people are incarcerated on any given day in the United States. We can—and must—do much more to help these young people and adults become productive members of society when they return…

May 29, 2018