Criminal Justice System Reform Is Within Reach With First Step Act

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With the support of President Trump, Congress is close to passing the most sweeping changes to the criminal justice system in decades, according to NBC News. The First Step Act has been years in the making, but partisan bickering, election-year politics, and political ambushes have constantly derailed it.

Now, the First Step Act may go to a vote during the lame-duck session before Congress turns over in January. The act changes the way the federal government treats drug offenders, both those who are already incarcerated and those who will face trial soon. It would give thousands of federal prisoners access to more help preparing for life after prison, thousands of prisoners who are well-behaved will win their freedom earlier, and thousands of people who are arrested for drug crimes in the future would become eligible for exemptions from harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

The act would create a points system for prisoners that can accrue for good behavior behind bars and for pursuing training and educational programs. These points would be applied retroactively, giving credit for past performance. Additionally, the Fair Sentencing Act would also be expanded to include inmates who were incarcerated before the 2010 law was passed. The First Step Act would also allow judges greater discretion during sentencing, freeing them from mandatory sentencing, while limiting a common prosecutor tactic of stacking gun charges on top of drug charges, even when a gun was not fired or otherwise used.

Despite these potential advances with the passing of the new law, reformers are dissatisfied in the the law will do nothing to curb prison spending, relieve staff shortages and inmate overcrowding, or make the justice system fairer.

“It doesn’t end racial disparity in the system. It doesn’t dramatically reduce the prison population,” said Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives at the Sentencing Project. “Every little bit helps, but it’s not the end of the conversation.”

The federal prison system has just less than 200,000 prisoners, which is tiny compared to the 1.3 million inmates in state and local prisons. It is in those state prisons that reform has been spreading, and many states have been able to reduce their prison populations while also cutting crime.

“The only reason we’ve gotten to the point of these federal reforms, which we think will be transformative, is the fact that states have applied them and have data they can point to that can persuade the tough-on-crime crowd,” said Mark Holden, chairman of Freedom Partners. “It is hard to argue against that, and it’s all based on data.”