A legislative overhaul to the criminal justice system has won widespread support from both major political parties on Capitol Hill and within the White House, but has yet to earn support from one of the key constituencies it would impact: federal law enforcement.
The bicameral, bipartisan First Step Act, for which President Trump recently announced his support, seeks to reduce minimum sentencing requirements for certain crimes, incentivize federal inmates to participate in more rehabilitation programs and allow for a higher cap on the time well-behaved inmates can slash off their sentences, among other changes. Advocates for criminal justice reform say the hard-fought compromise bill would benefit thousands of non-violent federal offenders, reduce overcrowding in federal prisons and provide a path to reducing recidivism. Some in the federal community, however, are not convinced the bill is a positive step forward.
The measure would free dangerous criminals federal officials fought to lock up to ensure the safety of American communities, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association said in announcing its opposition to the bill. The group represents 27,000 officers across 65 federal agencies.
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The bill would threaten “the safety of our members, law enforcement partners and our fellow Americans,” FLEOA President Nathan Catura said. He said his group has engaged with lawmakers to improve the bill since the House first passed an earlier version in May. FLEOA’s concerns were never addressed despite promises to the contrary, Catura explained.
“FLEOA shares the goal of a better and fairer justice system, but does not believe the First Step Act represents a holistic approach to dealing with criminals that focuses on returning productive citizens to society, rather than putting prison-hardened criminals and dangerous sex offenders back on the streets,” Catura said.
He was referring to a provision of the bill that calls on the federal Bureau of Prisons to match inmates with education, training and other rehabilitative services that could lead to a shortened sentence. The current cap of 47 days of “good time credits” per year of a sentence would be expanded to 54 days. The provision would apply retroactively, making thousands of inmates eligible for immediate release.
Eric Young, president of the American Federation of Government Employees council that represents the Bureau of Prisons' more than 30,000 correctional officers, voiced concern about the bill creating new programs without providing adequate resources. He praised lawmakers for creating a “blueprint” for hastening reentry for first-time, non-violent criminals and giving judges more discretion in setting sentences, but said there are still some “hiccups” in the bill. Young has for years advocated criminal justice reform, but has pushed in private meetings with lawmakers for more bureau funding and higher staffing levels to accompany those changes.
“If you don’t give us the money or the resources to do what you’re calling on us to do, then you’re setting us up to fail,” Young said.
Young and many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have long highlighted chronic understaffing at federal prisons, saying it has prevented the agency from accomplishing its mission of providing safe facilities for inmate rehabilitation. Federal prisons have relied on a procedure known as “augmentation,” in which employees hired for non-correctional officer roles, such as teachers, are placed into guard duty. Without addressing staffing issues, augmented employees will be unable to fulfill their responsibility in the renewed push to place inmates in rehabilitation programs.
The legislation authorizes $75 million per year over five years for such programs, but Young cautioned that congressional appropriators must still actually provide the money. He also noted the bill places significant new responsibilities on correctional officers to assess the risks posed by each inmate.
Some law enforcement groups, such as the Fraternal Order of Police and the National District Attorneys Association, have announced their support for the bill.
Trump on Monday held a roundtable in Mississippi to push the bill, saying it would help inmates “gain the skills that they need to obtain jobs and stay out of prison once they are released.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has stalled momentum, saying the chamber may not have time to advance the measure before the end of the legislative session. He has said he will take the temperature of his caucus before committing floor time to the bill.