Opinion: A big step to U.S. prison reform

Bernard Kerik

In keeping with his drive to build a better country for all Americans, President Trump called on Congress this week to pass the First Step Act, a giant leap towards fixing our broken prison system.

For years, establishment politicians in Washington have failed to deliver on their promises of prison reform, leaving us with a cruel and irrational system that incarcerates heavily, yet does not prepare inmates for life after prison. Thanks to President Trump’s commitment to solving this problem, however, we are finally on the verge of correcting this legacy of injustice and the revolving door of incarceration.

"Today, I am thrilled to announce my support for this bipartisan bill that will make our communities safer and give former inmates a second chance at life after they have served their time," the president said this week.

According to Trump, the administration’s pledge "to 'Hire American' includes those leaving prison and looking for a very fresh start — new job, new life."

Make no mistake — America needs prison reform now more than ever. This is not just another political issue that we can afford to subject to partisan gridlock — it is a long-overdue fix to a cultural problem that threatens the very fabric of our nation.

There are several major problems with the current state of our prison system, but perhaps the most concerning is our failure to reintegrate former prisoners back into society. According to some estimates, 77 percent of inmates end up being arrested again within five years of leaving prison.

Excessive incarceration rates also pose a significant risk to our society as a whole. There are currently 2 million Americans in state and federal prisons. Around 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent — a reality that has devastated communities all around the country.

In an effort to fix these and other failures, Trump and his Republican allies in Congress are backing the First Step Act, which will address key shortcomings within our prison system.

The overarching objective of the bill is to expand on Trump’s prison reform agenda by providing positive incentives for good behavior and making it easier for prisoners to reenter society.

After evaluating prisoners with new evidence-based assessment tools, for instance, authorities will be able to place them in recidivism-reducing programs that are also designed to boost reintegration. The new assessment strategies will also help law enforcement officials determine a prisoner’s propensity for violence, as well as his or her potential needs and risk factors, resulting in a more effective approach to supervision.

Most importantly, workforce programming and reentry programs to improve prisoners’ job skills will increase their probability of attaining gainful employment.

Americans have always believed in second chances. By passing the legislation, Congress can make Trump’s vision of sensible prison reform a reality, and ensure that former prisoners have the opportunity to become productive and successful members of society.

Bernard Kerik is a former police commissioner and Department of Corrections commissioner in New York City.