The First Step Act: Bipartisanship Making Prison Reform Possible

By: Nicole Sordello

In 1994, Bill Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which is known for its contribution to mass incarceration.  While the crime bill played a role in the declining crime rates that took place after its enactment and looked at the time to be one of Bill Clinton’s greatest achievements, he has since come forward with regret.[1]  Mr. Clinton has spoken out and shares the views of a changing society in saying, “I signed a bill that made the problem worse . . . . [W]e had a lot of people who were essentially locked up who were minor actors for way too long.”[2]  There has since been a strong divide in this country that has prevented any improvement in these criminal sentencing laws.

Now, almost 25 years later, it appears that the country is banding together to create change in prison reform policies.  On November 14, 2018, Donald Trump called on Congress to take action and support the First Step Act, bipartisan prison reform legislation.[3]  While the bill will not solve all of the sentencing and rehabilitation issues that our prisoners face, it is, like the name suggests, a first step, and a necessary one at that.

So what does the bill actually accomplish if it becomes law?  There are many positive elements of the bill that won’t be discussed today, but one benefit is easing the mandatory sentencing laws.  Mandatory sentencing laws, while working towards uniformity in punishments and deterrence of crimes, fail to take into account an individual’s unique characteristics, history, and situation surrounding the crime.  We have judges for a reason and need to allow them more freedom to look at the individual cases and determine the best sentencing option for each person.  That is precisely where the First Step Act comes in.  The bill does not get rid of the mandatory sentencing laws, but rather eases their severity and gives judges that necessary freedom.[4] In particular, among other sentencing guidelines, the bill would lessen mandatory sentences for serious drug felonies by five years, and the federal “three strikes” rule that now sentences a person to life in prison for three or more drug trafficking convictions would instead only require a 25 year sentence.[5] Additionally, people convicted of crack cocaine-related offenses, typically poorer people in urban communities, used to be punished much more harshly than those convicted of powder cocaine.[6]  The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced that disparity going forward, but was not retroactive.[7]  If passed, the First Step Act would apply the corrective laws to nearly 3,000 prisoners who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses before the Fair Sentencing Act was enacted.[8]  While this bill primarily addresses sentencing guidelines moving forward, it is important to correct the racial and economic disparities in sentencings during the drug war era.

Further, the bill encourages “prisoner participation in vocational training, education coursework, or faith-based programs” by giving participating prisoners credits that ultimately reduce the amount of time spent in prison.[9]  77% of State inmates and 38% of Federal inmates are rearrested within five years of release, which shows that the government should be doing more to ease the transition from prison to release.[10]  Prisoners involved in these programs will hopefully receive education and training inside the prison that will better prepare them to find a job and acclimate after release, thus reducing recidivism rates.

Democrats and republicans have worked together to get this bill passed.  Whether people are focused on the extreme costs that imprisonment imposes on tax payers or are concerned about the well-being of the prisoners themselves, the citizens of this country have spoken about the need to improve our system. In a poll conducted by Robert Blizzard of Public Opinion Strategies, 76% of voters believe judges need to be able to stray from the current mandatory sentencing laws and 87% believe inmates should be able to earn credits for participating in rehabilitative programs in prison.[11]  Holly Harris, Executive Director of the Justice Action Network, said it well, “At a time when our nation feels more divided than ever, one thing nearly all Americans agree on is the need to fix our broken criminal justice system . . . . ”[12] The First Step Act is only the beginning, and whether or not this bill becomes law, the country needs to use this bipartisan momentum to continue working together towards change.

[1]Peter Baker, Bill Clinton Disavows His Crime Law as Jailing Too Many for Tool Long, N. Y. Times(July 15, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/16/us/politics/bill-clinton-concedes-his-crime-law-jailed-too-many-for-too-long.html?_r=0.

[2]Id.

[3]President Donald J. Trump Calls on Congress to Pass the FIRST STEP Act (Nov. 14, 2018), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-calls-congress-pass-first-step-act/.

[4]Justin George, What’s Really in the First Step Act?, The Marshall Project(Nov. 16, 2018, 12:45 PM), https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/11/16/what-s-really-in-the-first-step-act.

[5]Id.

[6]Jon Schuppe, Criminal Justice Reform Finally Has a Chance in Congress. Here’s What the First Step Act Would Do., NBC News(Nov. 15, 2018), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/criminal-justice-reform-finally-has-chance-congress-here-s-what-n936866.

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[8]Id.

[9]President Donald J. Trump Calls on Congress to Pass the FIRST STEP Act (Nov. 14, 2018), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-calls-congress-pass-first-step-act/.

[10]Id.

[11]Justice Action Network Releases Exit Polling Showing Overwhelming Support for Criminal Justice Reform, Justice Action Network, http://www.justiceactionnetwork.org/justice-action-network-releases-exit-polling-showing-overwhelming-support-criminal-justice-reform/.

[12]Id.

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