WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a letter last week urging the Senate to pass the bipartisan First Step Act, which aims to “improve the lives of thousands of people impacted by our federal criminal justice system.”
The First Step Act, currently on the Senate calendar, would end the shackling of pregnant prisoners and would reduce and restrict enhanced sentencing for prior drug felonies.
The act would also establish a maximum geographical distance between prisoners and families, and would help those returning from prison to obtain government ID documents.
The Nov. 20 letter of support was signed by Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, Chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Sister Donna Markham, President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA; and Ralph Middlecamp, President of the National Council of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
According to the Congressional Research Office, there has been an 800 percent increase in the number of federal prisoners from 1980 to 2015.
“We work with millions of people on the margins each year, tens of thousands of whom are somehow involved in the criminal justice system, including victims of crime and persons returning from prison,” the letter reads.
“Many of our ministries are focused on helping returning citizens get training and employment so that, once they have served their time, they have the tools they need to make contributions to their families and their community going forward. We know that the system can do better in how it interacts with the root causes of crime, poverty, and lack of community safety.”
The authors praised the revised act, noting that it also allocates additional financial resources for rehabilitative programming when inmates leave prison.
“The criminal justice system has many problems, and this bill will not solve all of them,” the letter reads.
“It has taken many decades for mass incarceration and racial disparities to build up in the system, and it will take a long time for the reform that is needed to achieve a system that is truly just. This bill is a good first step in that direction.”
The letter was sent to Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA), who is the sponsor of the First Step Act, and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).