As we flip our calendars to the new year, we realize we’ve passed the midway point of the 2021-2022 Legislative Session. We can look forward to starting anew and resetting, whether that be applied to resolutions, relationships or simply recharging. Fortunately, for those Pennsylvanians seeking restoration, it’s on the move in the form of continued implementation of the federal First Step Act and in the form of state movement as it relates to probation reform and broader clean slate application.
This year, we celebrate three years of the The First Step Act (FSA) becoming federal law (December 21, 2018). It was the most significant reform to the federal criminal justice system enacted in a decade. The FSA aimed to ensure proportional punishment, enhance family support, and provide additional opportunities for individuals to restore their lives.
The FSA transformed the U.S. criminal justice system by focusing on 18 key reforms across four focus areas:
- Improving sentencing rules. These efforts included limiting mandatory minimum sentences, expanding compassionate release, and allowing more offenders to earn sentence reductions by completing programs to lessen their likelihood of recidivism.
- Addressing poor prison conditions. The FSA prohibits restraint of pregnant women, bans solitary confinement for minor children, and requires the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to place individuals as close to family as possible.
- Helping more people earn second chances. The FSA requires the BOP to identify best practices to reduce recidivism and partner with nonprofit organizations and educators to provide programs to help individuals learn the skills they need to flourish post-incarceration.
- Enhancing accountability and transparency. These efforts included requiring the U.S. Attorney General to create and consult with an Independent Review Commission to improve the criminal justice system. The Attorney General also must report on implementation progress each year.
Fifteen of the 18 key reforms are fully implemented or in the process of being implemented and while implementation is ongoing, the law already has helped thousands of people take the first step toward their second chance. The FSA and programs implemented due to COVID-19 have reduced the federal prison population by 24,000 people (13 percent). Only 11 percent of individuals released as a result of FSA reforms have returned to federal prison or been rearrested. The average 8-year recidivism rate is 49 percent.
The FSA has inspired countless reforms in state criminal justice systems. In Harrisburg, the Senate passed Probation Reform, Senate Bill 913, which will remove redundancies in the probation system to make the government’s process more efficient. It will allow individuals to leave the judicial district during their supervision time, shorten the duration of this period which will reduce the risk of technical violations, and set up a process for review conferences where probation can be ended early should all criteria be met. Passing 46-4 this session and passing unanimously last session, we urge Chairman Kauffman and the House Judiciary Committee to consider the legislation in short order and send it to the House for a floor vote. Governor Wolf has indicated his support for this reform. Additionally, Representatives Delozier and Harris have once again joined forces to expand Clean Slate automated sealing to lower-level drug felonies. The automated sealing would be applied after 10 years with a crime-free record has elapsed. This will immediately aid thousands of Pennsylvanians in becoming more employable and provide for restorative justice to those who have earned it.
Together, these state and federal laws once signed into law and fully implemented, will help millions of Americans restore their lives and use their own talents to benefit themselves and others. As an organization committed to smart-on-crime, soft-on-taxpayer reforms that make our communities safer while improving lives, Americans for Prosperity remains encouraged at the strides happening in both D.C. and Harrisburg. As you ring a New Year, please remember the opportunities that remain within reach for those Keystone State residents seeking a fresh start, too. I’m Ashley Klingensmith, State Director with Americans for Prosperity-Pennsylvania. Find us on Facebook by searching @PAAFP and on Twitter by searching @AFPPennsylvania.
Ashley Sisca Klingensmith | State Director | Americans for Prosperity – PA