First Step—Federal Government Makes Moderate Progress on Criminal Justice Reform

Dec 26, 2018 | Community

S. E. Williams

Momentum had built over the course of several months for passage of prison reform at the federal level. This week, the U.S. Senate played a key role in moving the legislation to completion. 

The senate’s bi-partisan vote of 87-12 on Tuesday, December 18, became the catalyst for assured success of the most assertive criminal justice reform measure at the federal level in decades. To The bill quickly moved back to the U.S. House of Representatives where it would experience further success later in the week.  

The bi-partisan legislation identified as the First Step Act is designed to make some adjustments to the criminal justice system at the federal level and will ease some prison sentences that were clearly disparate and have had a destructive impact on minority communities everywhere.  

America is broadly criticized because it has only five percent of the world’s population but accounts for 25 percent of people in prison—a clear indication to many that this nation has created economic wealth for those who benefit from this prison industrial complex while so many suffer and serve exhaustive and unjustly prescribed prison sentences.   

Although the federal government is only accountable for about 181,000 prisoners—a tiny fraction of the total 2.2 million Americans in prison today—and the bill’s changes are limited, the bipartisan legislation is a meaningful though limited, step forward.  

In truth, it falls short of the goals for criminal justice reform advocated by the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and others for years, as indicated by its name, it is a worthy “first step.” This is largely believed because thousands of prisoners will be able to earn earlier release dates, and, in the future, several others will see their sentences reduced.  

Although the CBC and others have labored committedly for years on this issue, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose own father served time in prison, advocated for the legislation and helped secure support for the legislation from reluctant conservatives.  

Many states, including California, have led on this issue. They have worked to adjust mandatory minimum sentences, drug penalty thresholds and felony thresholds at a state level, The federal government is late coming to the table despite the fact, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, the nation’s prison population has increased 500 percent over the last 40 years with no corresponding increase in crime.  

Unlike the version passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year that did not cut the length of prison sentences on the front end and primarily focused on rehabilitation programs that could help reduce prison terms, the reform bill passed by the Senate is measurably different, thanks to the efforts of Senate Democrats and their Republican supporters.  

It includes more job training and other programs designed to reduce recidivism and expands early-release initiatives. It also modifies sentencing laws—rather than a 100 to 1 difference in sentences for cocaine versus crack cocaine violations respectively, under the new law the difference will reduce to 13 to 1—clearly, the disparity persists. On the other hand, the bill also modifies mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders to provide more equitable sentencing.  

On Thursday, December 20, 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Senate version of the bill. President signed the First Step Act into law Friday afternoon.  


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