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Friday, November 16, 2018

The First Step Act Is a Giant Leap Forward for Criminal Justice Reform

It’s time to undo the damage done by previous lawmakers and usher in a new era of second chances.

Americans are divided on just about every issue these days except one: criminal justice reform. Over the past several decades the situation has gone from bad to worse as outdated and draconian policies, like mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the War on Drugs, have caused the country’s prison population to skyrocket. It becomes quite difficult to boast of being the “land of the free” when our country has more prisoners per capita than communist China, especially when we are locking human beings behind bars for choosing to consume certain substances.

However, for all of his faults, President Trump is making an effort to overhaul our criminal justice system and undo the damage done by so many who came before him, which has surprised many. When Jeff Sessions was appointed as Attorney General, it seemed as though the administration would be taking several steps backward from any progress that had been made during the Obama Administration, which, to be fair, was not much.

The president announced that he would be supporting the Senate’s First Step Act.

Sessions routinely supported harsher policies and, during his time as a senator, fought against reform bills like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. And as the rest of the country had started adopting more lax policies regarding marijuana-related “crimes,” Sessions was all too eager to return to the era of reefer madness. But with Sessions out and support for criminal justice reform up, we are on the verge of a new era.

On Wednesday, the president announced that he would be supporting the Senate’s First Step Act which, if passed, will be the most significant criminal justice reform bill this country has seen in decades.

The Senate Steps Up

Over the past several years, criminal justice reform has largely become a bipartisan cause, attracting support from both sides of the political aisle. It’s not often that you see Senators Cory Booker and Mike Lee join forces to fight for a cause together, but the fact that they have is a testament to just how important reforming our justice system is.

The First Step Act is the Senate’s take on an earlier bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives.

The “tough on crime” era that began in the 1980s was supposed to help make America safer. Instead, it irrevocably ruined lives, tore families apart by creating single-parent households, and left an entire country distrustful of its government’s motives. However, if this bill is passed, we might be able to finally begin to close this dark chapter of our country’s history.

The First Step Act is the Senate’s take on an earlier bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives. In May, the House’s version of the bill was passed but was viewed as flawed as it only addressed so-called “back-end” policy reforms. Back-end reform refers specifically to issues like improving prison conditions and instituting re-entry programs to lower recidivism rates, which are both absolutely important to overall reform.

However, the bill completely neglected to address our country’s sentencing laws, which is how our prison population grew so large to begin with. In fact, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley described the bill as “naïve and unproductive.” Luckily, the Senate has corrected these errors in their version of the legislation.

The First Step Act

Currently, judges are forced to comply with mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which prohibit them from judging each case based on its individual merits. In fact, many are forced to send first-time, nonviolent drug offenders to prison for a minimum of ten years, if not longer, based solely on these outdated laws.

The bill will make changes to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 by making it applicable to those sentenced prior to its adoption.

These policies tie the hands of judges and completely ignore the individual circumstances of the person being charged. Not to mention, it also ruins the life of first-time, nonviolent drug offenders who will now be forced into a system that will arguably exacerbate their criminal behavior. Unfortunately, prison fosters an environment where even nonviolent offenders have to turn to violence and crime behind bars as a means of survival.

But if the First Step Act is passed, mandatory minimum sentencing laws would be greatly reduced, which would allow judges to perform the duties that their job requires. It would also abolish the “stacking” provision, which is often used to tack years onto a sentence if a firearm is involved with the crime in any capacity. In fact, the firearm doesn’t even need to have been used; so long as it is found on the person charged or in their residence, the provision can be used to lengthen the sentence.

The bill will also make changes to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 by making it applicable to those who were sentenced prior to its adoption. For those unfamiliar with the details of the Fair Sentencing Act, the ACLU explains how it worked:

…reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. The scientifically unjustifiable 100:1 ratio meant that people faced longer sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine than for offenses involving the same amount of powder cocaine—two forms of the same drug. Most disturbingly, because the majority of people arrested for crack offenses are African American, the 100:1 ratio resulted in vast racial disparities in the average length of sentences for comparable offenses.

A Giant Leap Forward

While most of the reviews of the Senate’s bill have been positive thus far, there are some concerns. Unfortunately, many of the proposed changes to our current sentencing policies would not be retroactive, meaning they would not offer any relief to the many people who were sentenced under these unjust laws. However, the bill has dramatically improved since the House’s original text, which has given hope to many criminal justice reform advocates. And its name would imply that this is the first step of many to come in the future.

The Brennan Center for Justice came out saying:

The original First Step Act would have little effect on reducing prison populations and was a concession to Jeff Sessions—one of the only people against sentencing reform. We support this week’s Senate compromise bill because it includes several key sentencing reform provisions.

Other big names in criminal justice reform have come out in support of the Senate’s version of the bill, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, the National District Attorneys Association and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. For a country that cannot agree on much, this is huge.

The state of our criminal justice system has become so appalling that a majority of Americans now realize how truly cruel it is to strip individuals of their liberty and throw them in cages because of what they choose to put into their bodies. As a society, we have come too far to accept these draconian policies and, finally, we have a Senate that agrees.

Senator Mike Lee told FEE:

I’ve been working on this for eight years—essentially since I was elected to the Senate—because the federal criminal justice system needs reform. The updates we’re proposing would make Americans safer by refocusing scarce resources on those who present the greatest threat to society.

There are many reasons to dislike Trump’s policies, but his current support of the First Step Act should be applauded and encouraged at every turn. It’s time to undo the damage done by previous lawmakers and usher in a new era of second chances.

  • Brittany is a writer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. She is a co-host of “The Way The World Works,” a Tuttle Twins podcast for families.