On May 22, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 5682, the prison reform bill more commonly known as The First Step Act,
This is the bill that first son-in-law Jared Kushner supports and that President Donald Trump has stated he will sign.
Yet, although the bill, sponsored by Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins and New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, passed the House by a very healthy margin of 360 yeas to 59 nays, it is reportedly likely to run into major trouble in the Senate. In fact, it is unclear if the bill, introduced by Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), will make it to the Senate floor. This is due to the fact that an impressive line-up of civil rights organizations, along with some prominent law enforcement organizations, vehemently oppose the thing, albeit for very different reasons.
Eric Holder, for example, wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post right before the House vote. He pointed out that some of the changes The First Step act would institute do not require legislation. He also made the point that it does zero to address the larger problem of over incarceration. And worse, according to Holder and others—such as the ACLU—passing HR 5682 might ruin the possibility of passage for other more transformative bills such as Sen. Charles E. Grassley’s (R-Iowa) bipartisan measure that would revise the federal government’s outdated mandatory minimum sentences.
And there are additional things wrong with the bill, according to Holder and fellow opponents.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the criminal justice spectrum, organizations like the The National Sheriff’s Organization have trotted out the usual—this-legislation-will-allow dangerous-criminals-to-run-rife-through-the-countryside argument.
On Wednesday, however, a group of approximately 40 former inmates sent a polite but firmly-worded letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), arguing that the First Step Act, while modest and far from perfect, will nevertheless make a genuine difference in the lives of federal prisoners and their families.
Those who signed the letter, many of whom have gone on to work as justice reformers since their release, are arguably in a position to know what they’re talking about.
Long overdue relief
“Having spent a total of 352 years in federal and state prison,” the group wrote, “we bring a unique perspective to this issue, and we ask that you consider our views.”
The letter writers addressed the objections to the bill directly. None of them believe the First Step Act is perfect, they wrote.
“We do not believe it would reverse our country’s over-incarceration problem. All of us would change the bill in different ways and many of us wished it addressed excessive federal mandatory minimum sentences. But we also know that the bill would provide some long overdue relief and hope to more than 180,000 people in federal prison and millions of their family members and loved ones on the outside.”
Yet while the First Act wouldn’t make a dent in the need for federal sentencing reform, it would, according to the letter, do the following:
● “End the barbaric practice of shackling pregnant women in prison;
● “Enable everyone in federal prison (except those serving life sentences) to earn more time off for good behavior, thereby allowing them to return to their families sooner;
● “Keep families closer together by requiring the Federal Bureau of Prisons to place incarcerated people within 500 driving miles of their home;
● “Reform the federal compassionate release program so that taxpayers are not spending millions to keep locked up the most expensive and lowest risk people and so that families can spend a loved one’s final days together;
● “Invest tens of millions of dollars in recidivism-reducing programming, improving public safety and giving people in prison a true second chance; and
● “Require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to obtain government identification cards and birth certificates for people before they leave prison, which is crucial to finding work and getting health care, among other things.”
A step at a time
The letter writers—who included such people as Michael Mendoza of the reform group, #Cut50, who did 17 years in lock-up, inmate turned lawyer and Georgetown law professor, Shon Hopwood, who did ten years, Michael Santos, co-founder of Prison Professors, who did 26 years, and well-regarded poet and author turned attorney, Reginald Dwayne Betts, who did eight years —clearly understand what they are up against.
“Despite the bill’s clear benefits,” the group wrote, “we have heard some people suggest it would be better for Congress to do nothing rather than pass this bill. Such talk, they said, “reflects a disturbing detachment from the hardships that so many families are experiencing today because of our counterproductive federal sentencing and prison policies.”
The people they talk to, the former inmates wrote, “have no use for abstract debates about whether to pass comprehensive or narrow reform, speculative theories about how passing reform today might impact future reform or, worst of all, political gamesmanship. These families just need some help. They shouldn’t have to wait any longer.”
The argument for first steps
The former inmates’ point of view is not without supporters.
In the house, along with nearly all the Republican congress members, the majority of California Democrats voted for the First Step Act. Among the yea votes was California Congressman Tony Cárdenas, whose knowledge of and long-term commitment to justice issues is well known.
And there is a growing list of other justice reformers who see the First Step Act in much the same way as do the former-inmate letter writers.
For example, prior to the house vote, Van Jones, who when he’s not on CNN, has been active for 30 years in the justice reform world, along with Mark Holden, General Counsel for Koch Industries, wrote an Op-Ed urging the passage of the bill in both the and the Senate.
“This legislation would tackle recidivism head-on by bringing the latest data-driven and evidence-based research and best practices into the federal prison system,” Jones and Holden wrote. (Jones has supported the legislation from the beginning, and has taken much flack for it.)
“The bill would instruct the Federal Bureau of Prisons to take a more personalized approach and expand the availability of education, vocational training, mental health and drug treatment, which are proven to reduce recidivism. It would also put in place practices that just make sense. For example, it would help people in federal prison obtain identification prior to their release and set up savings accounts to help them establish a fund for their reentry into society. These are simple but important changes that will help individuals return back into our communities successfully.”
Furthermore, they pointed out, “rather than just implementing one-time changes, “prison officials would be required to constantly reevaluate and refine their programs to make them more effective.”
Then on Thursday, the conservative-leaning justice reform powerhouse, Right on Crime, ran its own Op-Ed by criminologist and retired sheriff Currie Myers asking the National Sheriff’s Association to please get with the program.
“The First Step Act will be an important public safety tool,” Currie wrote, “and an important ‘first step’ in reducing recidivism, reducing violent crime, and having an impact on the opioid crises in the United States. I urge my law enforcement colleagues, especially important community leaders like the National Sheriff’s Association, to get behind this legislation and its successful implementation.”
California’s stutter step reform
California, which is among the cluster of states that are leading the nation in criminal justice reform, is an example of why at times it is wise not to, so to speak, let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
For instance, it took years, two different bills, plus a couple of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, to get the state’s laws to the point that some of the kids who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles could one day apply for resentencing hearings. But eventually, after multiple rounds of four-steps-forward-three-and-a-half-back legislative attempts, which WLA and LA Times editorial board member Rob Greene obsessively covered, it got done.
On the other hand, in a May 17 letter to their congressional colleagues, Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Dick Durbin, Sheila Jackson Lee, and John Lewis, pointed to problems with the bill, which they say, among various objections, offers certain inmates the chance to “earn time credits” towards early release to pre-release custody, but wants to do so using a risk assessment algorithm that, placed in the hands of law-and-order fanatic, Attorney General Jeff Seasons, risks embedding deep racial and class bias into these crucial decisions. (Most state correctional systems instead use a performance and/or disciplinary records to make such decisions.)
Indeed. Maybe so. But, superstar civil rights lawyer and author, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative thinks there’s more good than bad in the bill, and said so succinctly in a tweet the morning that the House was going to vote on the act: “With over 180,000 people in federal prison, we desperately need reform, and, the FIRST STEP Act would be a great start.”
(It would be difficult to find anyone who speaks" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen> more persuasively and authoritatively against mass incarceration than Bryan Stevenson. Just sayin’.)
So what will happen with the First Step Act in the fractious Senate where, in addition to the opposition from high profile progressives, Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) who actually thinks that we still don’t lock up enough people, is energetically working against it?
We’ll keep you posted so….stay tuned.
Photo of ADX Florence, the federal maximum security facility located near Florence, Colorado, courtesy of Federal Bureau of Prisons.