Steering the Criminal Justice System Toward Rehabilitation Using First Step Act

Written following his return from 10 years in Siberian exile, Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” follows the story of Rodion Raskolnikov as he grapples with mental anguish after killing a pawnbroker. Dostoevksy struggles with many ethical dilemmas that plague criminal justice, including deep questions about the efficacy of imprisonment and the process of redemption. Centering around the dichotomy between formal and informal punishment, the questions that Dostoevsky contends with are issues that still bear enormous significance on how we choose to seek justice.

In one scene, someone asks Raskolnikov what becomes of thieves who are caught. “Then he gets what he deserves,” replied Raskolnikov. When questioned further, Raskolnikov simply states, “If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be his punishment — as well as the prison.”

Raskolnikov’s response is a vivid articulation of one of the most significant dilemmas facing our criminal justice system. How can we create a system that prioritizes redemption while simultaneously protecting the public?

Throughout history, there has been practically no discussion about redemption for criminals. As recently as the mid-1900s, many ascribed to the social Darwinist theories of people like Cesare Lombroso, who espoused the theory of criminal atavism — that some people are “born criminal” and could be identified by their physical characteristics.

Luckily, we have moved to a more enlightened era. However, many still view former criminals as second-class citizens. If we are to break this stigma, we must begin by treating convicted criminals as humans first. Justice requires punishment, but it also demands forgiveness for the repentant.

Justice has two qualifiers. The first is the formal punishment that the state imposes. The second, and more important, is the internal punishment a criminal with a conscience imposes upon themselves. This is the reason that remorse has become such an important piece of our criminal justice system. Research has shown that recidivism is correlated with expressions of remorse and guilt, meaning that the path to rehabilitation does not rest with incarceration alone. A criminal who shows no remorse for their actions is likely to be punished more severely because they demonstrate no conviction of conscience and are thus more likely to engage in future criminal behavior.

It is for this reason that criminal justice reform advocates have so vocally championed policies like the First Step Act that focus on rehabilitating incarcerated individuals and easing their transition back into society. These efforts have significantly improved our systems of justice; but there is still much to be done.

A prime area in which we might make significant inroads toward improvement is through supporting the implementation of changes to the Good Conduct Time (GCT) program under the First Step Act. This rule would modify the existing GCT structure to allow inmates to receive “up to 54 days of GCT credit for each year of the sentence imposed by the court, instead of for each year of actual time served.”

The GCT has been an important positive incentive for federal inmates since their inception in 1987. Basically, inmates who are serving sentences more than one year, but less than life, can receive credit “toward the service of his sentence” for good conduct. These credits are then counted toward time served, creating a pathway to early release.

Although statute allowed an individual to receive up to 54 days of good conduct per year of incarceration, as demonstrated before the U.S. Supreme Court in Barber v. Thomas, the previous method of determining GCT resulted in a de facto cap of 47 days. This was clearly not the intent of the original legislation that explicitly specified the 54-day cap. In fact, the only reason that the previous interpretation was supposedly legal is because of a flawed legal principle known as Chevron deference, which compels federal courts to defer to federal agencies’ interpretation of statutes. As a result of the new method, the Bureau of Prisons reported that 3,163 inmates were released from custody during the first round of recalculations in July 2019.

As countless formerly incarcerated individuals and statistics could tell you, being sent to prison is rarely sufficient to prevent recidivism. It’s time that we realize this fact and deeply reform the ways in which we choose to treat criminals, both inside and outside prison walls. The First Step Act and its resulting regulatory changes are just one way in which we can steer our criminal justice system toward one focused primarily on redemption and rehabilitation rather than punishment.

As Raskolnikov learns, it is impossible to ever truly escape from the consequences of our actions and the conviction of our conscience. Ultimately, it is these two things that prevent people from committing crimes in the first place. We have spent the better part of a millennium focused almost solely on consequences. Perhaps it’s time that we give conscience a chance.