Criminal Justice Reform – The First Step Act

Criminal Justice Reform
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Engage in any political discussion these days, and the same conclusion seems inevitable: we are living in a country divided. Our congressional leaders in both the house and senate, and their disdain for each other, is on full display each and every day. Attempting to distinguish real news from fake news is a particularly daunting task.

Well, here’s some real news that might restore one’s faith in our two-party system. In 2018, members of congress from both sides of the aisle came together and passed legislation reforming the federal criminal justice system. The First Step Act was signed into law by President Trump on December 21, 2018.

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Our country has been in “criminal justice reform” mode for the last few years. However, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, and the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, introduced in 2015, both stalled. When President Trump won his election in 2016, political leaders on both sides, feared once again, criminal justice reform would-be put-on hold. The concern for proponents of reform was put to rest when the First Step Act became law.

The highlights of the new legislation include the following:

Mandatory minimum sentences are eased by expanding the current “safety valve” used by federal judges;

Automatic life sentences for defendants with three or more convictions, the “three strikes” rule, is reduced to 25 years.

Stacking gun charges, a current practice which often times increases prison sentences significantly, is restricted under the First Step Act; Inmates who behave properly, avoiding prison disciplinary sanctions, can earn up to 54 days a year in “good time” credit. This change in the law offers an additional week of credit over the previous 47-day cap and is retroactive. It’s estimated that approximately 4,000 prisoners may benefit soon from this change and will receive early release; Inmates who participate in vocational and rehabilitative programs will accrue additional “good time” credit. This is another measure aimed at reducing our federal prison population, by offering an incentive for early release.

In an attempt to, improve prison conditions, the First Step Act bans the shackling of women during childbirth and requires that inmates be housed closer to their family. In addition, inmates who are terminally ill will be considered on a larger scale for early release.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, joined by over 100 various organizations, including the NAACP and The National Bar Association, voiced opposition to the act. In a letter written to senate and house representatives prior to the passage of the new law, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, promoted a “No” vote on the legislation.

The opposition was premised on the fact that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) already has the ability to implement the changes instituted through the First Step Act through its administrative authority. Opponents expressed concern that the bill fell short on it’s promise to “meaningfully” tackle the inherent problems that currently exist within our federal criminal justice system. Specifically, attention was directed at racial disparities in prison population and sentencing, mandatory minimum sentences, prison overcrowding, lack of rehabilitation, and cost.

Division in the United States often calls in to question whether or not we are truly a country united. Republicans and Democrats seen daily, fighting over political ideals, helps promote the image. Rational compromise leads to progress, and the First Step Act is a good example of bipartisanship working for the betterment of all. While impossible for political leadership to propose government improvements without some dissention, healthy debate leads to just results.

The First Step Act, as its name implies, is the “first step” in criminal justice reform within our federal government. Additional improvements can be made, and no doubt, will be made, as bipartisan efforts are pursued on behalf of all of us. Its just one step at a time. Daniel Clancy

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