On Friday, Dec. 21, the United States government proved to be simultaneously effective and ineffective, as President Trump signed a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill just a few hours before the partial government shutdown began.

President Trump signed the First Step Act into law after this piece of legislation was overwhelmingly supported by both the Senate and the House; the bill passed by an 87 – 12 vote in the Senate and 358 – 36 vote in the House. This bipartisan effort by both Republicans and Democrats is shocking as Washington has become an environment where the government cannot seem to agree on anything.

Here’s what the First Step Act does:

  • Federal prisons will promote rehabilitation and healing through the implementation of the Risk and Needs Assessment system. This system will evaluate the inmate’s likelihood of committing another offense after re-entering society and then will match the inmate to various programs that will encourage and support their personal healing, growth, and transformation. By concentrating on rehabilitation instead of punishment, the federal prison system will better equip inmates with the skills necessary to be successful when they return to society – ultimately making communities stronger and safer.
  • The First Step Act gives judges more discretion when sentencing offenders. Judges will be able to sentence individuals below the minimum sentence mandated for the crime. Additionally, this criminal justice law gets rid of the mandatory life sentence for Third Strike drug offenders. The ‘three-strikes’ provision was originally introduced in the 1994 Crime Bill, which stated that those who had two or more convictions for violent felonies or drug crimes would face mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In recent years, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 has been blamed for contributing to the nation’s mass incarceration that detrimentally affects black communities. Both of these bills were passed during the Clinton administration, and both Bill and Hillary Clinton have admitted that the portions of the law that lead to increased incarceration “were a mistake.”
  • The First Step Act retroactively provides relief to individuals serving biased and discriminatory crack cocaine charges. Back in the ’80s, Congress created multiple laws that specifically imposed harsher penalties for individuals charged with crimes involving crack cocaine in comparison to crimes involving powder cocaine. These policies resulted in crack offenses being punished 100x more harshly than powder cocaine offenses, disproportionately incriminating African American communities throughout the country. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), reducing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses to 18:1. However, about 3000 inmates are still serving sentences based on this biased inequality. The First Step Act allows these individuals to be resentenced.
  • This bill also helps to maintain family bonds despite incarceration, as the First Step Act requires that inmates are placed in facilities within 500 miles of their families.

The First Step Act was backed by individuals and organizations on both sides of the political spectrum. Supporters included: the Koch Brothers, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Jared Kushner, son-in-law to President Donald Trump.

Although this criminal justice reform bill, as hinted to by its name, is a substantial initial step in the right direction, it is just that.

The First Step Act will only affect the federal prison system, which only accounts for a fraction of the total prison population in the United States. The US jail and prison population total is 2.1 million, with an estimated 180,000 people currently in the federal prison system. The majority of the incarcerated people in America are housed by state and local prisons.

For considerable change to occur within the entire prison system, criminal justice reform would need to be implemented at the state level. Hopefully, the First Step Act influences state lawmakers to rectify previous laws that have enabled minorities to be taken advantage of by the criminal justice system.

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