The bipartisan passage of the First Step Act across both chambers of Congress today is an important first part of nationwide, comprehensive criminal justice reform.
This bill will treat people with humanity when they are incarcerated, and provide them with the necessary rehabilitative programming to become productive, crime-free citizens when they ultimately exit prison.
The First Step Act, if signed by the president, will ease federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws to address deficiencies in the government’s failed war-on-drugs policies, and retroactively apply drug sentencing reforms to people sentenced before 2010, to ensure our justice system treats everyone equally. People serving time in federal prisons will be able to earn “good time credits” from evidence-based programming that will ease transition back into their communities, and equip them with job skills and strategies to combat addiction.
For the incremental progress this act will provide, it is by no means a panacea to our nationwide overincarceration-and-paltry-rehabilitative-programming problems. It does not apply to nearly nine in 10 people incarcerated or under supervision in the United States – people in state prisons, on parole or probation, or in local jails.
It does not apply to those in federal prisons without documentation. It excludes federal “violent offenders” based on a risk assessment tool that may incorporate implicit racial biases. And it does nothing to address the expanding population of immigrants who are detained in prison-like settings, awaiting decisions on deportations, and often separated from families by hundreds or thousands of miles.
State legislators across the country in both parties should take immediate steps to apply the principles guiding the First Step Act – sentencing reforms, equal justice under the law, rehabilitative programming that provides addiction counseling and job training – to state prisons and local jails.