EDGEFIELD — Just before Christmas, an unlikely gathering joined President Trump at the White House for a landmark bill signing.
There was U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and fierce critic of the president during the 2016 primaries. Standing near him was Van Jones, a CNN commentator and former green jobs advisor for President Obama.
All were there to celebrate Trump’s signing of the bipartisan First Step Act — the nation’s most comprehensive overhaul to sentencing and prison guidelines in decades created to cut recidivism rates and create new programs to ready more than 100,000 nonviolent offenders for life beyond their cells.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr said many of the initiatives within the federal bill have been deployed by facilities on a state-by-state basis, and he wanted to understand how they were impacting prisoners.
That’s what brought him to the Level 2 institution in Edgefield on Monday, where he was joined by U.S. Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republicans who championed the First Step Act as it moved through Congress.
“The First Step Act is really watershed legislation,” Barr said. “I wanted to come down here for a couple of reasons: One, both senators standing over here were leaders in achieving the First Step Act and also because this facility really has some model programs that are exactly the kind of programs we want to improve and build upon.”
Graham called the First Step Act “the biggest change in federal sentencing in over a decade.”
“I think it’s a long overdue reform. We’ve already seen some beneficiaries of the act, and it focuses on making sure those nonviolent offenders are acquiring the skill set while they’re in jail to get of jail and be productive citizens,” he said.
Scott said the First Step Act was a common sense move.
“We certainly expect the First Step Act will be a monumental step in the right direction as it relates to reducing recidivism,” he said.
Officials said there’s also an economic benefit to the act since it costs about $90 a day to keep inmates housed a medium-level prison. Equipping them with job readiness skills means they can return to the workforce and begin paying taxes.
“If we can get these people out of jail with the skillset to pay taxes, it’s a win-win for everybody and from a personal point of view, if you can change somebody’s life and make them a better person, that’s money well spent,” Graham said.
Barr joined the senators for a site tour and learned more about some of Edgefield’s signature efforts, such as its residential drug abuse program, education services that offer literacy and GED classes and post-secondary courses, a culinary arts apprenticeship and advanced occupational education opportunities.
“The criminal justice process doesn’t end when you get a conviction and send someone to prison. Our job is to protect society, and these individuals who are serving their sentences are entrusted to the Attorney General’s care, and part of what we have to do is help these individuals ready themselves for re-entry into society,” Barr said.
Key provisions of the act include:
- Allowing eligible inmates to receive 54 days of good time credit annually, up from 47
- Incentivizing participation in career and life readiness programs through enhanced privileges
- Allowing transfer of low and minimum risk prisoners to home confinement or halfway houses
- Barring the shackling of pregnant women and requiring prisons to make feminine hygiene products available to inmates at no cost
- Mandating that prisoners be housed within 500 driving miles of families
“We need to make sure we are preserving our prison capacity for people that truly pose a threat to the community, so I strongly support the act and I’m looking forward to implementing it,” Barr said.
Barr said Edgefield’s training, drug treatment and vocational programs are at the “heart of the act.”
“Learning about their success, some constraints on the program, how we can expand them and get better results from them,” was the impetus for his visit, Barr said.
Scott said Edgefield has distinguished itself as an ideal example of what the First Step Act can offer.
“If you want to come to a model place where you have an opportunity to appreciate the depth that the First Step Act can take, you have an actual opportunity to see men here at the facility working their way out of the facility, with resources at hand,” he said. “There are a number of examples here that showcase for the nation why the First Step Act can be incredibly successful.”