The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This bill could help begin to fix the federal prison system. It must pass.

President Trump, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, Vice President Pence and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham during a roundtable on the First Step Act in Gulfport, Miss., on Monday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Newt Gingrich, a Republican from Georgia, was speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999. He is a signatory to the Right on Crime Statement of Principles.

I have spent many years working to reform and improve the United States’ criminal-justice system. Some of the repairs are needed, frankly, because of well-intentioned but misguided crime-prevention efforts that I backed as a Republican leader in Congress during the 1990s. Over this time, I have observed the following pattern:

• Strong, common-sense, consensus legislation is drafted to make the country safer, stop the revolving door of recidivism and help inmates become productive, law-abiding citizens. These types of bills often pass a congressional committee with clear bipartisan support.

• Seeing a bill on a trajectory of success, other lawmakers move to tack their own measures to it. This stage often frustrates leadership by injecting controversial measures into otherwise positive legislation and slowing down momentum.

Imagine you're a public defender in a criminal-justice system that penalizes people who want their day in court. What do you do? (Video: Danielle Kunitz, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

• The slowdown usually gives the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key crowd plenty of time to nitpick and fabricate bizarre reasons to claim that the proposed legislation is soft on crime — or will give hardened criminals get-out-of-jail-free cards.

Now the pattern is unfolding with the First Step Act, a laudable criminal-justice reform bill that ought to come to a Senate vote during the lame-duck session. What is happening to the bill is deeply troubling.

The First Step Act is well-reasoned, evidence-based policy to reform the dysfunctional federal prison system. (Today, without the bill’s emphasis on rehabilitation, roughly half of all people released from federal prison will reoffend within eight years of release.) The bill was crafted from proven reforms already passed in states such as Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, where crime rates and prison populations have declined.

On May 22, this bipartisan bill passed the House by a vote of 360 to 59. There were 134 Democrats who voted yes with all but two Republicans of those who voted. Thanks to White House leadership and support from Republican and Democratic members of Congress and the large, passionate community of people working on criminal-justice reform, the bill made it past various interest groups without being sunk by controversial, niche policy additions.

But now the politics-first, status quo crowd — including a loud minority in Congress — is trying to stop it with distortions and misinformation. Let me try to set a few things straight.

The First Step Act is an important first step toward changing the federal prison system from a warehouse for humans to a system that helps inmates become law-abiding, productive citizens by focusing on their specific needs and risks. The purpose of all of this is to help ensure that when inmates get out of prison (as 95 percent of them will), they will have the skills to earn honest livings, the resources to combat addiction and the opportunity to live happier, productive, crime-free lives.

The United States now spends $80 billion a year on a system in which half of the people complete their prison sentence and commit more crimes. Wouldn’t it be better if they got out of prison and never went back because they are leading law-abiding, productive lives?

The First Step Act does not grant so-called early release to dangerous, high-risk violent criminals. The bill does allow the Bureau of Prisons to move certain minimum- and low-risk inmates to lower-security detention regimes — which could include halfway houses, home confinement or supervised release, if the circumstances warrant. That would not be an option for violent criminals, drug kingpins (including those who traffic fentanyl) or other perpetrators of many other federal crimes.

The bill does not reduce sentences for current felons who have had two or three strikes for committing drug felonies or other serious federal crimes. It does reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for second and third offenses by future offenders — from 20 years to 15 years, and from life to 25 years, respectively. To claim that a minimum of 40 years in prison for future repeat offenders is soft on crime is ridiculous.

Under the legislation, an 18-year-old who first commits a felony, and then immediately commits two more serious drug or violent felonies upon consecutive releases, would be imprisoned until age 58 from these sentencing enhancements alone — and this isn’t counting the sentences for the underlying three offenses.

The First Step Act is supported by major law enforcement groups such as the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the National District Attorneys Association. Who should we believe, police or supposed “tough on crime” politicians?

This bill is the best chance I have seen in decades to help begin to fix the federal prison system in meaningful ways that will reduce crime, lower prison populations, decrease costs and cut the rate of recidivism.

Most importantly, it will help improve the lives of all Americans by giving some who are struggling with drug addiction, poverty or a lack of education the opportunity to become honest, upstanding citizens.

Congress should break the pattern of the past and pass this bill before year’s end.

Read more:

Karen Tumulty: Something rare and wondrous is happening in Congress

The Post’s View: A criminal-justice bill has support from both parties. Mitch McConnell shouldn’t delay it.

Michael Gerson: No more pits of despair. Offenders are still humans.

Eric H. Holder Jr.: There’s something huge missing from the White House’s prison bill

Danielle Allen: How should we deal with wrongdoing? And you can’t say prison.