While prison-reform advocates are celebrating the just-passed First Step Act, there is still work to be done to ensure its speedy implementation, according to one of the men who spearheaded the bill.
“We have to see this to completion,” said Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, in an interview Monday with Hamodia.
Margaretten is an activist from Monsey who led a decade-long fight for prison reform, after witnessing the suffering of the wives and children of men in prison. After years of legislative battles, the First Step Act was passed last week by large majorities of both houses of Congress. President Donald Trump signed it into law on Friday.
The Act allows federal prisoners (other than those who have committed specific, mostly violent, crimes) to earn significant time off their prison sentences by participating in constructive programs designed to reduce their risk of recidivism (returning to crime) and help them be productive members of society once freed. Among these are classes on morals or ethics, academic classes, substance-abuse treatment, job training, and faith-based classes or services. Eligible prisoners deemed to be at low risk of recidivism may earn time credits of up to 15 days off their sentence for every 30 days in which they participate in these programs. Once they leave prison, the remainder of the sentence would be served in home confinement, or, in certain instances, in a halfway house, until 85 percent of the original sentence is complete.
Prisoners who participate in these rehab programs are also eligible to receive additional visitation and phone privileges in prison.
The Act also allows the Bureau of Prisons discretion to release prisoners over 60 years old who have served two-thirds of their sentence. It increases time off for good behavior for all prisoners to 54 days per year, from the previous maximum of 47. And it provides “front-end” sentencing reforms as well, by reducing sentences for certain crimes, mostly drug-related.
Margaretten was in the Senate gallery when the bill – which had been held up due to the opposition of a few conservatives, primarily Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) – finally passed, on Tuesday night.
“It was an amazing feeling knowing that after 10 years, we had finally been able to do something to reduce some of these draconian prison sentences and reunite families,” said Margaretten, speaking to Hamodia shortly after his first visit to Otisville prison following the bill’s passage. On this most recent of his many visits to that federal penitentiary, “so many prisoners came over to me to shake my hand,” said Margaretten. “For so long, they had been hoping that something may be done, and now, finally, it has.”
But Margaretten says the work to achieve prison reform is far from complete.
Under the bill, the various steps to implement the time-credit rehab program could take up to three years to become fully operational. Margaretten and his associates, working with funds recently raised in an online Charidy campaign, have created the Tzedek Association, which will seek to speed implementation of the bill by providing prison rehab programs. The law specifically allows faith-based and other organizations – as well as the government itself – to administer the rehab programs. The Tzedek Association will also advocate for annual reauthorization of the $75 million of yearly funding for the programs in the Act.
“Government is not the speediest institution in the world,” said Margaretten. “We need to push them to get the ball rolling, so that we will soon see real relief for prisoners and their families.”