01 June, 2018 6:41 PM

Letter of Support

Download the draft letter of support to use in mailing your member of Congress.

Senator Mitch McConnell Majority Leader
United States Senate
317 Russell Senate Office Building Washington, D.C. 20510

Senator Charles Schumer Senate Minority Leader
United States Senate
322 Hart Senate Office Building Washington, D.C. 20510

Senator John Cornyn
Majority Whip
United States Senate
517 Hart Senate Office Building Washington, D.C. 20510

Senator Dick Durbin
Senate Democratic Whip United States Senate
711 Hart Senate Office Building Washington DC 20510

Re: Support for S. 2795 The FIRST STEP Act

Dear Senators Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, Charles Schumer, and Dick Durbin,

We write to you today to urge your support and an immediate vote for S. 2795, The FIRST STEP Act.

We envision a criminal justice system that recognizes the humanity of the 2.2 million people currently behind bars in America and moves toward compassion and treatment rather than punishment and incarceration. S. 2795 falls in line with our mission by improving the conditions for incarcerated individuals, reducing the amount of time people spend in prison, and provide meaningful opportunities to successfully transition into their communities.

We are encouraged by strong support from both Republicans and Democrats on criminal justice legislation. Specifically, we credit Senators John Cornyn and Sheldon Whitehouse for coming together to introduce the FIRST STEP Act. In the House, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Doug Collins worked in a bipartisan fashion to greatly improve this bill over earlier versions and pass it with overwhelming support from both parties by a vote of 360-59 - including Aye votes from all GOP and Democratic party leadership. Critical to this process has been the input and support of formerly incarcerated individuals with lived experiences through the federal prison system.

In 2015, 3 out of 10 federal prisoners and 6 out of 10 state prisoners released to a term of community supervision returned to prison within 5 years. Far too many struggle with unemployment, housing instability, and substance addiction when they come home. Many have difficulty overcoming the trauma they experienced during their incarceration and reestablishing ties to family and community that were damaged by their incarceration. We strongly believe that the provisions of S. 2795 will lead to better outcomes for individuals reintegrating back into their communities. Establishing a system that provides guidance and intensity of evidenced-based recidivism reduction programming will provide the necessary resources for individuals to prepare for release.

This bill works to improve the lives of the incarcerated men and women, their children, and their families by:

Reducing the number of people incarcerated in federal prisons

This bill will immediately make over four thousand people in federal prison eligible for early release - by fixing a good time credit calculation retroactively. Men and women in incarcerated federal prison will earn nearly 8 weeks (54 days) per year off of their sentence for good time. Thousands more will soon become eligible to move from Bureau of Prisons facilities into home detention as a result of the expansion of the elderly prisoner pilot program - which gives people 60 years or older who have served more than 2/3 of their sentence an opportunity to serve the remainder of their sentence on home confinement.

The bill will expand the capacity of prison programming to ensure that individuals inside can benefit from counseling, drug treatment, training and education. By participating in programming, individuals will earn credits (at a rate of 10 days for every 30 of participating in programming) that allow them to shorten the amount of time they spend in prison and release back to their communities and families sooner - via expanded use of home confinement. It provides a pathway to prerelease for even those deemed “high” or “medium” risk.

Increasing opportunities for programming and work within the walls

Currently, there is a significant lack of programming inside the federal prisons. S. 2795 authorizes $50,000,000 each year for FY 2019 through 2023 (quarter of a billion), which can be used for programming. This bill also allows more outside nonprofits, volunteers and faith-based groups to go into federal prisons to provide programming. These volunteers will not only provide critical programming, but also will serve as mentors to those inside and be a valuable asset in changing the culture within the institutions and bringing hope and compassion to those inside.

The bill also expands work programs so that those inside have an opportunity to work and save money in escrow accounts that they can use as they return home to get back on their feet. S. 2795 also creates an ID program so that men and women returning to society have identification necessary to gain benefits, housing, and employment.

Protecting Women and Facilitating Family Connections

Currently, men and women can be housed thousands of miles away from their loved ones, left with little opportunity to maintain familial relationships that are critical to both their well being while inside and successful reentry. S. 2795 will require that people living in federal prisons be housed within 500 driving miles of their families. Allowing individuals to serve their sentences in facilities closer to their family support system, maintains a healthy bond and strong ties to the community.

In the last two decades, the women’s prison population has risen by 700%. Our prisons and policies were not designed to meet women’s needs and the result has been a system that traumatizes and endangers women. The FIRST STEP Act will end the shackling of women in labor and post-partum. Shackling pregnant women is dangerous and inhumane. The shackling of pregnant women endangers the lives of the mother and fetus. S. 2795 sends a clear message of responsibility for the health and safety of both the mother and the fetus during pregnancy by banning the use of shackles. It will also provide hygiene items to women in prison at no charge and expand phone and visitation time that are vital to the rehabilitation process and to allowing the 80%of women who are mothers in prison stay connected to their children. The bill also contains a fix to Prison Rape Elimination Act, which will improve how the audits of prison rape incidents are conducted.

Providing Meaningful Oversight to Help Ensure Proper Implementation

S. 2795 will also place additional layers of accountability and oversight within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Additionally, there will be an annual accountability report to ensure that the risk assessment tool is being administered in an unbiased way. This is crucial as we continue to face vast racial disparities that negatively impact African American and Latino communities.

These are meaningful reforms. This is our best chance to pass this bill into law and dramatically change the lives of people inside - and expand accountability and oversight of the federal prison system.

The passage of S. 2795 will truly be the first step towards further progress that we hope will eventually include sentencing reform. #cut50, on behalf of the undersigned organizations and individuals, respectfully urge you to schedule a vote on this legislation and vote yes in support.

Sincerely,

Jessica Jackson Sloan
Co-founder of #cut50

Van Jones
Co-founder of #cut50 and Board President of The Dream Corps