In 2009, South Carolina’s prisons housed 25,000 people — a number that would only rise year-over-year. But in the seven years following 2009, something very different transpired: The prison population decreased by 14 percent while the crime rate simultaneously decreased by over 15 percent.
This feat could not have been accomplished by one single person, nor was it accomplished by one single party.
Dramatic decreases in prison population and crime rates came from a reassessment of what criminal justice means. Twenty or more years ago, when many of our criminal laws were written, the focus was on walls, bars and beds. Today, and for the last decade in South Carolina, our focus has been on people.
State governments — that are closer to the people — made the first moves to promote public safety and lower recidivism rates in their communities, and as a variety of reforms and programs were implemented, the federal government took notice. The First Step Act passed last December has already made good on the promise of opportunity — and of forgiveness — for people who have paid their debt to society.
Recently, I sat in on the president’s symposium at Benedict College and one thing was abundantly clear: The Trump administration and states like South Carolina have made concrete, positive progress in criminal justice reform. Speaking at one of our state’s top HBCUs, President Trump took the opportunity to address a group that has long called for restorative justice, while also making it known that his work is not yet done. Ninety-one percent of the inmates freed under First Step were African American.
Matthew Charles, one of the first beneficiaries of the act, spoke of the mass incarceration that led to “a generation of black men erased,” including his own for over two decades. This loss of time and life is not forgotten in the president’s eyes, nor is it forgotten in South Carolina’s.
The energy in the room made it clear that the inspiration, motivation and reason behind it has not dwindled in the slightest because this is an issue that all people care about.
There was no self-congratulating, no credit taken by one group, party or level of government. However, there was recognition for the people — those who have benefited from the First Step Act, and as a result, are now productive members of society.
And that is exactly what this issue, at its core, is about: The people. The great nonpartisan work on criminal justice reform stems from a mutual understanding that the parties’ interests fall far behind the principal best interest of the citizens. And when policymaking and government operates this way, more long-term solutions are possible.
That is why the First Step Act was aptly named: It implies that more steps will be taken to work on our country’s prisoner reentry efforts. That couldn’t be truer for South Carolina and the Trump administration.
With combined efforts, states and the federal government are able to start building solutions to the rising rates of recidivism. These solutions have come in the form of job training and drug treatment programs in prison facilities, and in 2018 when states such as Arizona and Kansas relaxed their occupational licensing restrictions, removing the barrier between many released inmates and employment.
These successful solutions have the numbers to back them up — and the numbers don’t lie. But in this case, the numbers are real people with bright futures, and that alone defines the reason. While we measure prison populations, crime and recidivism rates in numbers, the value of each life that is impacted is immeasurable.
With the same determination and purpose that was witnessed at Benedict College, we should not spend too much time congratulating ourselves for the job well done in states that enacted the First Step Act. Those states have made the best interest of their residents the priority, and recognize the opportunity that waits behind a second chance — both for the individual and the community. But we should now point our collective efforts toward what more can be done. I hope to see and support the Second Step that is currently at the drawing board, a Third Step and so on, because our work is not done.
Elected officials at all levels of government and at any point on the spectrum should give prisoners the opportunity to participate in these innovative and effective programs, and then continue to raise awareness for the success of re-entry efforts. The First Step Act was just that — the First Step in the right direction. Let’s keep walking that way.
• Alan Clemmons, a member of the South Carolina State House of Representatives, is the current national chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council.
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