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With Senate support, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins aims again for prison reform
Doug Collins
Doug Collins

Aiming to “promote human dignity in and beyond our prison system,” U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, has introduced prison reform legislation in the U.S. House and has a companion bill in the Senate.

The bipartisan legislation introduced on Monday, May 7, would accomplish a longtime goal for the Gainesville Republican: Reducing recidivism through inmate-specific evaluations done at sentencing.

The bill is also at the top of its class in terms of tortured acronyms: It’s officially the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, or the FIRST STEP Act.

It was introduced by Collins in 2017 as the Prison Reform and Redemption Act. The current version of the bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York, and is being carried in the Senate by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island.

There are a few differences between the new and old proposals, Collins told The Times on Monday, May 7, but the core of the bill remains focused on prisoner training, education and counseling and would allow them to finish the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement.

Based on prisoners’ evaluations, they would be eligible for vocational training, educational support, substance abuse treatment, mental health care, anger-management courses, faith-based initiatives or other resources, according to an announcement from Collins’ office on Monday.

“It’s a beefed-up prison reform bill that will help ... prisoners who go into the federal system,” Collins said in a phone interview from Washington on Monday. “It redoes how recidivism is dealt with in the Bureau of Prisons. Basically, when people come in they’ll be counseled and advised and assessed when they first come into the prison, not middleways or later in the process, so that they can buy into their own plan to find the issues that cause recidivism.”

The bill was crafted with input from the White House, and Collins said Jared Kushner,  the son-in-law and adviser of President Donald Trump, has been a particular ally of the bill.

Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, spent time in federal prison for a slew of charges related to illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering in 2005 — and it was then-U.S. attorney Chris Christie who put him behind bars — and the experience made Trump’s son-in-law much more receptive to prison reform.

The bill does not address sentencing reform, Collins noted, which would be a “much bigger lift” and currently doesn’t have Trump’s support or the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“The president will sign this bill. He will not sign sentencing reform,” Collins said.

But the FIRST STEP Act should be on the floor of the House before Memorial Day, he said. The Senate version is slightly different, but Collins said he was confident differences could be reconciled in a conference committee.

Collins also touted the broad political coalition behind the bill. On Monday, the sponsors of the two bills included statements in the Georgia Republican’s announcement.

“The mass incarceration epidemic is 50 years in the making. Fixing our broken criminal justice system will take an all-hands-on-deck effort from my colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Jeffries said in the announcement. “The FIRST STEP Act is a significant step in the right direction.”

Meanwhile, Whitehouse said the reform tracks with state-level changes made in Rhode Island, noting that “everyone benefits when Americans who repay their debt to society emerge from prison ready to work and to contribute to their communities.”

Cornyn also referenced reform efforts in his home state of Texas, saying that the bill would “rehabilitate low-risk offenders and prepare them to re-enter society” and that it would “help shut the revolving door of recidivism to save taxpayer dollars and reduce crime.”