Seeing a second chance with the First Step Act

News

One of the first significant overhauls to the Federal Criminal Justice system in years is now waiting on the president’s signature.

It’s after the House passed the First Step Act, following the Senate earlier in the week.

President Donald Trump has announced his support for the bill and intends to sign the legislation. 

The goal is to reduce recidivism and prison population.

The bill focuses on Federal crimes and would give judges more freedom in sentencing for certain cases. 

Certain low-level offenders could qualify for early release for good behavior, and it will also make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive for disparities in sentencing between convictions involving crack and powder cocaine. 

Certain low-level offenders could qualify for early release by earning Good or Earned Time Credits.

It also supports re-entry programs both behind bars and after release to help reduce recidivism and make for a successful transition.

Quad Cities Interfaith supports criminal justice reform and restorative justice practices. 

Members told Local Four News things are moving in the right direction. 

“Helping people, helping both victims and offenders to come to grips with what happened and to improve their lives and we do believe that this at least puts us in that direction,” QC Interfaith Mass Incarceration and Restorative Justice Lead Rev. Jay Wolin said. 

Rev. Wolin also told Local Four News, another aspect of the prison reform bill is it addresses some of the racial disparities when it came to the sentencing of crack and powder cocaine. 

Rev. Wolin said, “This does at least work to write these wrongs. I think there’s much more than can be done, but I was happy to at least see a bipartisan bill and see both sides work together, at least in the right direction.”

QC Interfaith said even with the completion of this bill the work for change can’t stop.

The next area they would like to see addressed is alternatives to incarceration. 

“About measures to reduce recidivism, about rehabilitation. These are very important things, but I think we also have concerns that this is sort of a back-end solution to a front-end problem in terms of the over-incarceration,” said QC Interfaith Lead Organizer Aaron Wagner.

In the Quad Cities, the group supported and assisted with the launch of diversion programs like the mental health and drug courts. 

They said these programs don’t just keep people out of jail; they also make sure people can access the solution for the diagnosis that could have led them into the criminal justice system.

QC Interfaith also told Local Four News, even though the First Step Act only addresses federal crimes they hope it will lead to state action.

While they look at the policies, the Safer Foundation is also working to break the cycle.

Safer launched the Advancing Careers and Employment or ACE program in the Quad Cities about a year ago.

Using a grant from the Department of Labor, the service offers classes for former inmates looking to have a smoother and successful re-entry into society. 

The goal of the program isn’t just to make sure clients can land a job but a career. 

A client of ACE Program, Penny King said, “When you get out, you’re nervous, you’re scared to death. You don’t know how society is going to react to you or respond to you.”

Proof of giving a second chance is highlighting on the walls of the Safer Foundation’s offices inside Seventh Judicial District Correctional Services building.

It’s success stories like Travis Utley who’s now enjoying life newly employed.

A client of ACE Program, Travis Utley said, “It’s helped me find a job. It’s helped me go to school.”

He came to the Quad Cities looking to restart after serving his time.

Utley said, “I moved down here from northern Minnesota, so up there, there was basically nothing.”

Penny King is another client who has her sights set on the future and just weeks away from heading to college. 

King said, “I’m now enrolled into the culinary arts program.”

The ACE program provides classes all through the week covering G-E-D prep to hard and soft skills to start planning and making it in a career.

King said, “Have done resumes, we’ve done job readiness training.”

As they look toward their future, they said their experiences in prison has shown them the need for the First Step Act and the need for more career and re-entry program.

King said, “There’s going to be more education brought into the penal facilities, just more programming, more training for us.”

And making a difference in the time they served.

Utley said, “I would actually be able to have my plea bargain, but in that case, the judge had to sentence me to a minimum of 60 to 90 days’

They said programs like ACE that can keep people on the right track with support and hope.

King said, “There’s a light out here, and there’s something you can do, and you are more than what your past used to define you.”

The program has more than 80 clients, 50 of them that completed the job training.

Most are referred to the ACE program by probation or parole but former inmates can also self-refer if they meet specific requirements. 

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