This op-ed was originally published at The Hill on May 31, 2018.
Kim Kardashian visited the White House on Wednesday to talk about an issue near and dear to her heart. The reality television star and spouse of rapper Kanye West met with President Trump and White House officials to discuss prison and sentencing reform.
Kardashian has been a proponent of criminal justice reform and a vocal advocate for those who have received unnecessarily long sentences. Shortly before her meeting at the White House, she wished Alice Marie Johnson a happy birthday, adding, “Today is for you.” Johnson, a 62-year-old great-grandmother and nonviolent offender, was given a life sentence in 1997 for her role in a drug ring.
“The Keeping Up with the Kardashians” star has also recently tweeted about Matthew Charles, who served 21 years of a 35-year prison sentence before being released in 2016 under the Fair Sentencing Act. Sadly, Charles is being sent back to prison, not for reoffending, but because a federal prosecutor successfully appealed the sentence reduction. Due to a prior stint in a state prison, the court deemed Charles a “career criminal” who did not qualify for a sentence reduction.
By all accounts, Charles had been a model prisoner and had become a man of faith. During his short release between 2016 and 2018, he found a job, is in a loving relationship, and had become a volunteer at a food pantry. He did everything right in rehabilitating himself and contributing to society. Now, the crime-free life he had made for himself has been taken from him by a technicality in the law and an overzealous prosecutor.
The passion that Kardashian apparently has for prison reform and the cases of Alice Marie Johnson and Matthew Charles is shared by others all across the political spectrum. Although many may not be familiar with the effort, the goal of prison reform is to reduce recidivism, or the rates of repeat offenses.
Prison reform is part of the larger criminal justice reform effort. Although a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill that includes even modest sentencing reforms may not be possible at the moment, conservatives and liberals agree that too many nonviolent offenders have been locked up for too long and that reforms are needed to prepare prisoners for life outside of prison.
In May, the House passed the FIRST STEP Act, H.R. 5682 by a vote of 360 to 59. The bipartisan legislation sponsored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) would require the development of a risk and needs assessment tool that would be used to establish a prisoner’s risk of becoming a repeat offender. The assessment would be used to determine the type and intensity of evidence-based programming needed to reduce the prisoner’s risk of recidivism.
Eligible prisoners who successfully reduce their risk of recidivism will be able to earn ten days of time credits for each 30 days of successfully completed programming. Prisoners who are minimal or low risk of recidivism can receive an additional five days of time credits. These time credits can be used by prisoners classified as minimal or low risk over two consecutive assessment periods to serve part of their sentencing in pre-release custody, such as home confinement or a halfway house. Offenders who have committed certain offenses — including violent offenses, terrorism, and sex crimes — would not be eligible for the program .
The FIRST STEP Act is not a venture into the unknown. The bill is based on reforms in states like Georgia and Texas, which have focused on evidence-based programs to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety. The reforms have seen success. In Texas, the recidivism rate has seen a gradual decline to 21 percent for prisoners released in 2013. Similarly, Georgia’s recidivism rate for prisoners released in 2014 was below 28 percent. By contrast, the current federal recidivism rate is near 33 percent.
Even while imprisonment rates have declined, Georgia and Texas have seen their lowest crime rates since 1972 and 1967, respectively. The successes that these two states have seen, as well as others that have taken a smarter approach to recidivism reduction, are the foundation for the FIRST STEP Act.
Of course, there is much more that can and eventually should be done to address the problems with the criminal justice system. Sentencing reforms are needed to ensure that punishments for low-level nonviolent offenses fit the crime, as well as to ensure that limited prison resources are being focused on violent offenders. States have done this by reclassifying certain drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors or creating safety valve exceptions to mandatory minimum sentences.
Those returning from prison often face a lack of economic opportunity. Although we tend to think of a prison term as “paying a debt to society,” the stigma of a criminal record can stick with a former prisoner for much longer and prevent them from finding employment, housing, or education opportunities. States like Georgia and Texas have tackled these challenges through different avenues. Some have adopted record-sealing and expungement or banned the criminal history box on applications for jobs in state government.
The FIRST STEP Act is not the end of the criminal justice reform effort; far from it, in fact. Kardashian’s advocacy for reform is important, and the cases she has brought attention to aren’t going to be solved by Congress’s passage of one piece of legislation. To get where we need to be, it’s going to take a concerted, prolonged campaign with diverse voices from across the political spectrum.
Jason Pye is the vice president of legislative affairs FreedomWorks. Follow him on Twitter at @pye.