The FIRST STEP Act, which President Trump signed into law in December 2018, was lauded by civil rights advocates in Maryland and around the country as a meaningful step toward a more equitable criminal justice system. The law offers relief to federal prisoners who were convicted of nonviolent offenses, but the overwhelming majority of the nation’s inmates are held in state rather than federal detention facilities.
More than 2 million people are currently incarcerated across the country, and civil rights groups claim that this squanders resources that could be used far more productively. While federal criminal justice reform laws do not address this issue, lawmakers in various parts of the country are taking a more proactive approach and have achieved considerable success with alternative sentencing strategies.
Many of these lawmakers turned to New York City for ideas because of the success of innovative programs operated by the courts, nonprofit organizations and prosecutors there. In 1991, jails in the city housed 21,000 inmates. That number has since been reduced by more than 60 percent. One of the most successful programs offered in New York helps offenders to cope with stressful situations using cognitive behavioral techniques that teach individuals to think instead of reacting. Research going back more than a decade suggests that this approach can reduce recidivism rates by as much as 50 percent.
Experienced criminal defense attorneys may encourage prosecutors to consider alternatives to harsh custodial sentences by reminding them that the primary goal of the criminal justice system should be to rehabilitate and not punish offenders. They could also point to research revealing that prisoners incarcerated for long periods are more likely to commit another crime. Attorneys may make these arguments more persuasive with mitigating factors such as a previously unblemished criminal record, sincere remorse, steady full-time employment and the support of family and friends.