The ‘First Step’ in a second chance

During his floor speech Monday in support of a bipartisan prison reform bill, Sen. Dick Durbin raises a photo of former inmate Alton Mills, who now has a job and attends a community college. (Image: Video screenshot)

The Senate on Tuesday passed a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that would allow eligible prisoners to earn and count vocational training and education toward credits for early release.

The First Step Act, which proposes changes to sentencing for the federal system, would allow certain incarcerated, low-risk individuals to participate in evidence-based programming through which they could earn skills that would help them land jobs when they re-enter society. The Senate passed the bill on a 87-12 vote.

The legislation has support from both sides of the aisle as well as President Donald Trump. The American Association of Community Colleges has long backed education and training for prisoners through its support to restore Pell Grant eligibility for qualifying inmates.

On to community college

In a speech Monday on the Senate floor to encourage lawmakers to support the bill, U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Illinois) shared the story of Alton Mills of Chicago, who at age 24 received a mandatory sentence of life without parole for selling drugs on the street — a low-level, nonviolent drug offense.

At the request of a criminal defender in Illinois, Durbin appealed to then-President Barack Obama to commute Alton’s sentence, which he did. In December 2015, Alton was released after 22 years. Since then, Alton has been a productive member of society, Durbin said, noting that he’s a mechanic at Chicago Transit Authority and pursuing an associate degree at a community college.

“Finally, his life is on track,” Durbin said. “If he hadn’t received a pardon, Alton Mills was destined to die in prison because of our existing federal sentencing laws.

On the same page

Republicans also support the bill. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who helped craft the legislation, said Monday on the Senate floor that recidivism rates are too high and drive crime rates up. In the federal system, 49 percent of prisoners are re-arrested within eight years, and 32 percent are convicted of new crimes, he said.

“We must better prepare prisoners to leave behind their criminal past and to become productive citizens when they leave prison,” said Grassley, who is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We also need to make sure that criminal sentences are tough enough to punish and deter, but not be unjustly harsh. Sentences should not destroy the opportunity of redemption for inmates willing to get right with the law.”

What’s in the bill

Under the legislation, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons would assess inmates at the start of their sentences to determine what supports they would need to help prevent recidivism, such as drug and alcohol counseling, education and skills development. Higher education institutions would be among the institutions that could provide such instruction.

Several trade organizations, such as the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), support the bill, noting education and apprenticeship programs established through the reform bill would provide skills needed to find jobs with livable wages as well as help industries such as construction find enough skilled workers for available jobs.

“The legislation also outlines the benefits of industry-recognized education programs, which teach market-driven skills and allow individuals to earn portable and stackable credentials upon completion,” Greg Sizemore, vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development at ABC, wrote in The Hill newspaper in support of the bill.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.