Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that the First Step Act is a meaningful step toward comprehensive prison reform. You can find a counterpoint here, where former Martinsburg, West Virginia Police Chief Maurice Richards argues the law allows criminals to evade accountability for their crimes.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect name for the First Step Act. It’s not a complete cure for the problems of our criminal justice system, but it was never meant to be. Instead, it was just that: a “First Step.”
Three years ago, Democrats and Republicans worked together (yes, it’s possible!) to pass the most impactful federal sentencing and prison reform in 30 years. When President Donald Trump signed it into law, it had the widest range of support in recent memory, from left-wing commentator Van Jones to the National Fraternal Order of Police.
It was a gateway toward reversing mistakes of overreach during the “tough on crime era” of the 80s and 90s that had crowded prisons, torn families apart and made communities less safe.
The First Step Act changed the national conversation around our criminal justice system to focus on being “smart on crime.” Both sides of the political aisle came together in long-overdue agreement that America’s justice system needs to focus on more than just sending people to jail. To protect the public, we must prevent repeat offenses too.
Research tells us the longer the jail sentence, the more likely it is that a person will commit another crime after their release. This is true even for the inmates considered to be low-risk offenders. This act helps to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.
The reforms included in the law focus on preventative measures: Easing excessive mandatory minimum sentences and reducing sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentences — both of which have disproportionately harmed the black and Latino communities.
The act requires that the Bureau of Prisons transfer small-time, low-risk inmates from prison to home confinement — a win for all taxpayers spared the hefty costs of room and board and for advocates who understand that the risk of reoffending decreases when people are confined at home.
Those weren’t the only steps it took towards giving people a true fresh start. The law strengthens programs allowing nonviolent offenders to pursue education, learn a skill and become productive citizens after their release — and it gives inmates who participate in these rehabilitative programs the opportunity to earn credits that can lead to early release.
Advocates have raised concerns over the algorithm used to determine who qualifies for earned time credits, but the logic and the spirit of the program are sound.
The first step was to create a time credit program. Now we can improve on it.
We can start by demanding the Bureau of Prison’s union get out of the way. Their stalled union negotiations have delayed the application of earned time credits that could have reduced time served for 60,000 low-risk inmates.
We have more work to do, but we shouldn’t dismiss how far we have come. The First Step Act, combined with criminal justice reforms in states like Pennsylvania, Texas and Hawaii, have resulted in both lower costs and lower crime.
This is what actual reform looks like in action — unsullied by woke activism that cares more about optics than actual change.
Cities including Philadelphia and San Francisco are learning the difference the hard way as they grapple with “progressive prosecutors” like Larry Krasner and Chesa Boudin, who are simply refusing to prosecute crimes.
Krasner refuses to prosecute certain gun and drug crimes and pressures other prosecutors to seek lighter sentences for certain defendants. This includes downgrading the murder charges for defendants who have already admitted to the crime.
These activist attorneys aren’t reforming the system — they are picking and choosing who they want to punish.
The results of this approach speak for themselves. Philadelphia recently surpassed its all-time homicide record in a single year, and December isn’t even over yet. And you can barely check the news without seeing images of broken glass and violent crime in San Francisco.
As it turns out, when you don’t prosecute criminals, crime goes up.
Criminal justice reform is not about being softer on crime. It’s about a smarter approach to our justice system and our prisons — focusing resources on protecting public safety.
The First Step Act improved both areas, while showing states that justice reform can be good policy and good politics. The law recommitted our nation’s priorities around protecting public safety, due process, and the humane treatment of inmates. It made good progress, but more needs doing.
That sounds like the definition of a first step to me.
Jennifer Stefano is Executive Vice President of the Commonwealth Foundation and a Visiting Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. Follow her on Twitter @jenniferstefano.