The US Congress, along with the likes of White House official Jared Kushner and Democratic strategist Van Jones have taken strides to bring much needed reform to the criminal justice system.
Known as First Step Act, the legislation looks to revise some of the anti-crime legislation that was championed by previous administrations. E.g. Changes will be made to Bill Clinton’s infamous three-strikes and you out ‘penalties which has deeply affected the African American community.
“Here are the major provisions of the First Step Act, as it stands now:
- The bill would make retroactive the reforms enacted by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level. This could affect nearly 2,600 federal inmates, according to the Marshall Project.
- The bill would take several steps to ease mandatory minimum sentences under federal law. It would expand the “safety valve” that judges can use to avoid handing down mandatory minimum sentences. It would ease a “three strikes” rule so people with three or more convictions, including for drug offenses, automatically get 25 years instead of life, among other changes. It would restrict the current practice of stacking gun charges against drug offenders to add possibly decades to prison sentences. All of these changes would lead to shorter prison sentences in the future.
- The bill would increase “good time credits” that inmates can earn. Inmates who avoid a disciplinary record can currently get credits of up to 47 days per year incarcerated. The bill increases the cap to 54, allowing well-behaved inmates to cut their prison sentence by an additional week for each year they’re incarcerated. The change applies retroactively, which could allow some prisoners — as many as 4,000 — to qualify for release the day that the bill goes into effect.
- The bill would allow inmates to get “earned time credits” by participating in more vocational and rehabilitative programs. Those credits would allow them to be released early to halfway houses or home confinement. Not only could this mitigate prison overcrowding, but the hope is that the education programs will reduce the likelihood that an inmate will commit another crime once released and, as a result, reduce both crime and incarceration in the long term.” – Vox
So in Congress recently the First Step Act was passed 360-59 in a rare bi-partisan moment under the Trump administration.
But what was interesting from the vote in Congress was some of those Representatives who voted against the First Step Act. They included the far-right Republican Steve King along with African American Democrats such as Maxine Walters, John Lewis, Sharon Jackson-Lee and Elijah Cummings. So Lewis and King on the same side but not the King you would expect.
Donald Trump came out and publicly endorsed the First Step Act but some supporters of the reforms are concerned that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell could stall at having a vote in the Senate.
Some Republican Senators such as Bob Corker and Tom Cotton have voiced their opposition to the proposals. Makes you wonder why and wonder if money is never far from their thinking.
It is fair to say that one of the losers – should the First Step Act become law – will be the private prison firms such as Geo Group and CoreCivic. Both are known to have contributed to the coffers of political campaigns for both Republican and Democrat candidates. Geo Group did donate to the Trump 2016 campaign. Less prisoners is bad business for private prison companies.
- Will the private prison firms lobby hard to delay any Senate vote? Yep
- Will McConnell prevent a vote in the Senate? Not anymore as McConnell seems to have changed his tune and will allow vote this week.
First Step Act has brought unity between Democrat figures (such as Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, Beto O’Rourke and Jim Clyburn) and Republicans (including Marsha Blackburn, Mia Love, Trey Gowdy).
As Dr Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King) wrote recently “The FIRST STEP Act can launch a better way to America’s criminal justice reform. While many have asserted that this bill is not comprehensive enough, to which I also agree, we must also understand that the road to progress is paved with incremental steps.”
Who would have thought that in 2018 that Steve King and the much respected John Lewis would be (for differing reasons) on the same side in opposing proposals for criminal justice reform? Strange politics.