1. Opinion

Column: Florida is right to model prison reform on Trump's initiative

The best thing Florida can do to improve its own criminal justice system is to follow in President Donald Trump's footsteps on prison reform.

Donald Trump's First Step Act has already made a huge difference in our communities. Non-violent inmates — including some who were sentenced under unjust laws that the First Step Act has finally reformed — now have a chance to earn sentence reductions by participating in programs designed to help them reintegrate into society.

Thanks to the bipartisan criminal justice reforms that President Trump signed last year, more than 16,000 inmates have participated in effective new drug rehabilitation programs, and hundreds of inmates with unfair sentences have been allowed to return to their families and begin rebuilding their lives.

However, there is only so much that Washington can do when it comes to solving criminal justice challenges, because so much of it takes place at the local level.

As a long-time advocate for prison reform, I've been to prisons all around the country, and I've seen just how complex this issue can become once you consider the enormous variety of state and local laws that federal legislation can't address. For that reason, even the most extensive overhaul of the federal prison system will only help a relatively small fraction of the total prison population — which is exactly why Florida's effort to supplement the White House policy is so important.

Currently, Florida lawmakers are debating two criminal justice reform bills, both of which incorporate important elements of the federal First Step Act.

The version proposed in the House of Representatives would make it easier for former inmates with prior felony convictions to obtain professional work licenses required for barbers, cosmetologists, and other professions.

That's the sort of common-sense reform that has the power to transform people's lives while also eliminating an archaic rule that was probably put in place as a favor to some special interest lobby, anyway. Can you imagine what concerns lawmakers could possibly have had in mind when they made it illegal for an ex-convict to do someone's hair and makeup?

The Senate bill, on the other hand, prioritizes changes to so-called "mandatory minimum" sentencing laws that prevent judges from tailoring punishments to fit the nature of the crime.

The two initiatives have a lot in common, as well, such as provisions to help local prisons do a better job rehabilitating inmates. Florida lawmakers have signalled a willingness to compromise in order to smooth out the remaining differences, and it sounds like they're actually going to do it in a way that makes the bill stronger.

Florida is on to something. Every state in America should view the criminal justice reform pioneered by the White House as a model for meaningful change of their own laws. The federal First Step Act is not a complete solution to the problems that have made ours a criminal injustice system, but it does exactly what it promises — it takes a first step in the right direction, and sets an example that all 50 states can and should follow.

President Trump himself has acknowledged that there is still more work to be done, and he recently promised that his administration will expand on the First Step Act with a "Second Step Act" that creates additional programs to help former inmates successfully re-enter society.

"Americans with criminal records are unemployed at rates up to five times higher than the national average," the president said while introducing his follow-up initiative. "Today, I am announcing that the Second Step Act will be focused on successful re-entry and reduce unemployment for Americans with past criminal records."

I've said it before, and I'll say again — nonviolent prisoners who do not pose a risk to our community deserve a chance for redemption no matter where they reside.

Florida's push to pass its own prison reform initiative is a welcome step forward in repairing our nation's criminal justice system — and I hope that every other state in the country emulates Florida as it joins President Trump in the fight for a just America.

Alveda King is the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and daughter of King's younger brother, Rev. A.D. King. She is a prominent American author, pro-life and civil rights activist and minister. She is a Fox News channel contributor and once served as a senior fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a Washington, D.C. think-tank. She is a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives and the founder of Alveda King Ministries.