- - Monday, December 3, 2018

Conservatives have always been for law and order, obviously. There will always be bad people in this world who deserve punishment. Sometimes it needs to be swift and severe punishment. It’s ridiculous that I should even be saying this.

But conservatives are also against mindless big government because it has the power and predilection to damage lives; and as people of faith, we also believe in compassion and second chances. It’s rather sad that I should have to write that as well — but apparently, some don’t see conservatism that way.

Our current criminal justice system is a bureaucratic mess that continues to hurt too many. Over the last 40 years, the U.S. incarceration rate has increased more than 800 percent and federal spending on this front has swelled to more than $7 billion annually. Ponder those figures.

It’s a system that’s so bloated it’s untenable. It’s not working — period.

Many of those affected by this massive spike are non-violent offenders who serve needlessly long sentences. This is why President Trump recently announced he would support the First Step Act currently in the Senate. It has the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, various faith and law enforcement leaders, Republican Sens. Tim Scott, Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, every one a staunch conservative. They’re supporting not just the concept of prison reform, but its documented results. A number of conservative states have already implemented similar criminal justice reform measures with considerable success.

The First Step Act addresses the catastrophic reality that prisoners are not rehabilitated by incarceration. The five-year recidivism rate for inmates released from state prisons is 76.6 percent, which is unacceptable, period. This bill doesn’t mean well-behaved, non-violent prisoners aren’t punished and it doesn’t mean they are in the clear. It allows federal inmates to earn “time credits,” as Sen. Lee notes, “to secure their transfer from prison to pre-release custody — meaning home confinement, supervised release, or a halfway house.”

Violent offenders and others who could pose a significant danger are not eligible for the program.

It’s important to note that this legislation has been crafted based on what statistics and data have already shown, not mere sentiment or rhetoric.

The data in states that have implemented similar programs have shown that this not only lessens taxpayers’ burden, but helps non-violent offenders re-enter society in ways that are helpful to themselves and their communities. Justice Department reports indicate that education programs (16 percent reduction) and vocational training programs (33 percent reduction) have shown significant decreases in recidivism rates.

The First Step Act would allow more prisoners to improve their lives sooner, with the potential for thousands to become productive citizens after the end of their sentences. Not surprisingly, more ex-convicts not returning to criminal activity after release has resulted in falling crime rates in a number of states. “The bill includes reasonable sentencing reforms while keeping dangerous and violent criminals off our streets,” President Trump said. “We’re treating people differently for different crimes. Some people got caught up in situations that were very bad.”

Very bad indeed. Such was the case for 63-year-old Alice Johnson, who received a life sentence in 1996 for a first-time non-violent drug offense. Mr. Trump granted clemency for Johnson in June, and now this grandmother and ordained minister can reconnect with her family and society.

Countless Americans like Mrs. Johnson have languished for decades behind bars thanks to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 1994 crime bill. Mandatory minimum sentences put thousands of non-violent offenders in prison for sentences longer than what most rapists and murderers receive. Judges have long been powerless to do anything to rectify these injustices because the federal guidelines took sentencing power away from the bench.

The First Step Act also addresses this problem, allowing judges more discretion in sentencing than what current law dictates. Many judges for many years have said they should have the power to determine sentencing, not Congress.

Despite this effort having widespread bipartisan support, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says that a vote on this bill might not be possible this year. Why not? Some predict this bill could get 65 or more votes and could prove to be one of the most popular pieces of successful legislation in recent memory.

“Americans from across the political spectrum can unite around prison reform legislation that will reduce crime while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption,” President Trump said at his announcement.

President Trump is right. It’s past time to implement such legislation.

While this bill might have bipartisan support, these are essentially conservative reforms that not only offer second chances to those who earn them, but have the potential to make our communities stronger and safer.

Sen. McConnell can call for this vote anytime he wants. There is no time like the present.

• L. Brent Bozell III is chairman of ForAmerica, the nation’s largest, active online conservative network with more than 8 million supporters.

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