House Committee Passes Prison-Reform Bill

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday passed a bill aimed at allowing low-risk federal prisoners earlier release for good behavior and permitting more privileges in prisons.

By a 25-5 margin, the Committee passed the “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act,” known as the FIRST STEP Act, sponsored by Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.)

Under the FIRST STEP Act, most white-collar prisoners determined to pose no serious risk of re-offending once they leave prison will be allowed to participate in programs to rehabilitate themselves and help them re-enter society. These prisoners will receive 10 days off their sentence for every 30 days in which they participate in the programs.

The time off for participating in the rehabilitation programs is in addition to the time off earned for good behavior, which will now be increased to a maximum of 54 days per year served (15 percent of the sentence) from the previous limit of 47 days (12.5 percent). This increase in the time off for good behavior will be retroactive to the beginning of the prisoner’s sentence; the time off for attending rehab programs will only begin once the programs are set up, which can be up to two years after the FIRST STEP Act is signed into law.

Under the bill, prisoners who achieve the maximum time off for good behavior and participation in the rehab programs may end up reducing their sentences by almost 50 percent. Once they leave prison, they would serve the rest of their sentence in a halfway house followed by home confinement until 85 percent of the sentence has been served.

The Act also allows prisoners who are at least 60 years old and have served two-thirds of their sentence to serve the remainder in home confinement at the discretion of the Bureau of Prisons.

Under home confinement, prisoners must remain at home under 24-hour electronic monitoring and may leave only for specified reasons such as work, to perform community service, receive medical treatment, or to attend religious activities. If the electronic monitoring is not feasible for religious or technical reasons, the Bureau of Prisons may use an alternative means of monitoring.

The Act also seeks to improve conditions for prisoners, such as by increasing phone access to 510 minutes per month from the current limit of 300; allowing for additional visitation time as determined by the warden; and banning or minimizing the use of all restraints such as handcuffs and shackles on expectant prisoners until after the period of postpartum recovery.

The bill is expected to easily pass the full House, but faces a stiff battle in the Senate. Much of the opposition is from lawmakers who are unhappy that it does not include sentencing reform — that it only reduces sentences on the “back end,” rather than on the “front end.” The current bill was brought forward after the White House indicated it would not support front-end reduction of sentences at this time, but would enthusiastically support these back-end reforms.

Reform advocates who spoke to Hamodia hailed the Committee’s passage of the bill Wednesday, noting that the FIRST STEP Act is just the “first step” in revamping the criminal-justice system.

“This has been a prolonged, uphill battle, and the Committee’s passage is phenomenal progress,” said Moshe Margaretten, an activist who has worked for years on prison reform. “We are very encouraged with our process going forward and can finally see a victory for our efforts. We are looking forward, b’ezras Hashem, to bring this bill to the finish line.”

Gary Apfel, attorney for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin who then decided to dedicate his practice to working pro bono, on behalf of the Aleph Institute, to helping people who get caught up in the criminal system and to achieving prison and criminal-justice reform, called the bill’s passage “a miracle.”

“The miracle is that it passed with such strong bipartisan support,” said Apfel, who was inspired to work on this bill and other reform efforts as a result of his experiences working with Aleph on the Rubashkin and other cases. “Everybody knows how divided everything in Washington is these days, but this bill passed the Committee by such a wide margin.

“This bill is just the first step to passage, and I want to thank the people who supported us until now, and I am looking forward to continue working with them and others to ensure the bill’s passage. Im yirtzeh Hashem when the final bill is passed, it will ease the suffering of many people and their families.”