The FIRST STEP Act will make us safer without the Cotton-Kennedy amendments
My experience as a survivor of violence is similar to that of many survivors. The first time I was raped I was in college. I was sexually assaulted twice more in my early twenties. I have struggled with panic attacks and depression, and for many years I used drugs and alcohol to cope. Now in recovery and 10 years sober, I work with other crime survivors to fight for policies that promote healing over retribution. Cotton and Kennedy claim they are trying to protect victims with an amendment to force the Federal Bureau of Prisons to notify victims of a crime when the perpetrator is being transferred to pre-release custody, but their real goal is simply to delay, dilute, and derail the bill. The existing draft of the First Step Act was the result of careful, bipartisan and bicameral negotiations. By adding their last-minute amendments, Cotton and Kennedy want nothing more than to break up the broad bipartisan coalition that has come together to support this bill. The amendment related to notifying victims is redundant because the Crime Victims Rights Act already provides victims a right to protection, notice, and the ability to be heard at any public court proceedings, including at sentencing. It gives victims the ability to meet with investigators and prosecutors and opt-in to receiving notifications from the Bureau of Prisons upon the release or change in custody status of the offender. This allows victims to decide whether or not they wish to be notified; many opt out because they do not want relive their experience. The amendment actually takes agency away from victims. The effort to delay and dilute the First Step Act goes against what the majority of crime survivors want and need. In the first ever national survey of victims’ views on safety and justice that was conducted by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, victims said by a 2-to-1 margin that they want the criminal justice system to focus more on rehabilitation and less on punishment and long prison sentences. I have learned through my past work as a victim advocate that preventing crimes like sexual violence and creating a more humane criminal justice system are not opposing goals. They are actually mutually beneficial. Twenty-five years ago, my work for a family violence program in Asheville, N.C., took me to halfway houses, where I spoke with women returning home from prison. Almost all of them suffered domestic or sexual violence, often times both. Their crimes were generally low-level drug offenses. This has not changed. The vast majority of incarcerated women–and a large number of incarcerated men–are themselves victims of physical or sexual abuse who need mental health services, addiction treatment, counseling, and support rather than longer prison sentences. If the First Step Act was currently written as passed, it would help move our federal criminal justice system in a more restorative direction while keeping public safety the number one priority. People who arrive in federal prisons wanting to better themselves would no longer have to wait for years for basic literary classes and job training programs. It would incentivize people to participate in rehabilitative programming through Earned Time Credits and earlier transfers to halfway houses or home confinement. The brutal shackling of pregnant and postpartum women would come to an end. The Prison Rape Elimination Act would get much-needed compliance standards, crucial to ending a cycle of violence and recidivism. The Cotton-Kennedy amendments are not really about protecting victims; they are about sabotaging the bill. As a crime victim who supports more rehabilitation and less incarceration, I strongly urge the Senate to pass a clean bill we can all celebrate. Tricia Forbes is a Texas-based Regional Training Manager for Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice.