Updated: Oct 2
The First Step Act, signed by President Trump in 2018, was hailed by Attorney General Merrick Garland as “a critical piece of bipartisan legislation.” Yet, it continues to be controversial in today’s partisan political world.
The nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice and The Sentencing Project recently issued separate reports taking an early look at the act. Each report acknowledges that while there is much more to learn and study, it is at least playing a role in reducing recidivism, the Hill reports in an opinion piece. With so little data available, it is easy to make arguments for or against the effectiveness of the First Step Act. One thing that is hard to argue with, however, is its treatment of elderly offenders and the opportunity we have to reduce overcrowded prisons, save taxpayer money and still protect society.
But if Congress does not act soon, this opportunity will fall by the wayside, as this little-known program expires on Saturday. The First Step Act reauthorized and modified the pilot program for eligible elderly offenders and terminally ill offenders. This section allows offenders who are over 60 years of age, have served two-thirds of their sentence, are not convicted of a crime of violence and do not have a history of escape to be placed on home confinement for the remaining portion of their sentence. Well-established research shows that older people are substantially less likely to recidivate. In fact, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported the recidivism rate of people over the age of 50 was less than half that of those under 50. Under the pilot program, only those over 60 are considered, and they can’t have any history of violence, thus making their recidivism rate even lower. At the same time, the cost of housing older people is becoming astronomical. The average age of people in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities has increased by 8 percent over the past decade. Approximately 45 percent of offenders have multiple chronic conditions. As people age in prison, the demands on the bureau’s health resources will continue to increase.