Trump Signs Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform Bill

New law will expand job training and programs to reduce recidivism

Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP December 19, 2018
Trump Signs Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform Bill

[Updated: Dec. 21 after the president signed the bill.]

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives approved a bipartisan measure that would provide job training, treatment and rehabilitation for the formerly incarcerated. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on Dec. 21.

The First Step Act passed the Senate by a vote of 87-12 on Dec. 18 and the House by a 358-36 vote on Dec. 20. The new law aims to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders in federal prisons and improve programs to reduce recidivism.

"We're investing in the men and women who want to turn their lives around once they're released from prison … and we're investing in tax dollars into a system that helps produce stronger citizens," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, prior to the vote.

The employment of people with criminal records is an issue workplaces should be talking about, according to Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). "I encourage HR professionals to lead conversations about inclusive hiring at their organizations so other executives can make informed, sensible and beneficial hiring decisions."

Here are SHRM Online resources and news articles from other trusted media outlets on the topic.

Bipartisan Support

The First Step Act received bipartisan support and was approved by all Democratic and all but 12 Republican senators. Additionally, the bill was supported by conservative political groups, such as the Koch network, and civil-rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. Trump also supported the bill. "This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it," he said on Twitter. "In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved."


Some Want More Reform

Senators debated the details of the bill for over a year and ultimately passed what has been called the biggest change to the criminal justice system in many years. Supporters said the bill (which is primarily focused on drug and nonviolent offenses) would make the system fairer, reduce overcrowding and save taxpayer funds. Some lawmakers, however, said the bill goes too far. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., called the bill a "jailbreak" and said that too many crimes were included for prisoners to be considered for early release. On the other side, some lawmakers who support the bill said that reform needs to go further. The bill only covers federal prisoners, whereas about 90 percent of the country's incarcerated population is in state prisons.

(NBC News)

A Second Chance

According to research by the Indiana Department of Correction, unemployment was the greatest predictor of recidivism, and unemployed offenders were more than twice as likely to reoffend than those with a job. Businesses can help reduce recidivism by giving the formerly incarcerated a second chance. "Companies must no longer view a criminal record as an automatic disqualification for employment," Taylor said. Almost a third of working-age adults have criminal records. "Many prisoners and ex-offenders are desperate to make an honest living and would make hardworking, loyal employees," he said. "All they need is a second chance."


[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connect]

Willing to Collaborate

A nationwide study commissioned by SHRM and the Charles Koch Institute found that job applicants with criminal backgrounds may be more scrutinized during the hiring process, but many employees, managers and HR professionals are open to working with them. For example, more than 80 percent of managers and 67 percent of HR professionals surveyed felt that workers with criminal records bring the same amount (or more) value to the organization as workers without records. And a majority of workers in all roles said they are willing to work with employees who have criminal records.


[Visit SHRM's resource page on workforce readiness.]



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