First Step Act is the Most Important Federal Criminal Justice Reform in Decades

Marc Morial
Marc Morial

“For too long, sentencing in our country has been overly severe and has disproportionately targeted communities of color – especially Black men. Reforming some of the most draconian federal sentencing laws, including unfair mandatory minimum sentences under two- and three-strikes laws, will make our system more just … However, to be clear, the FIRST STEP Act is very much just that – a First Step. It is a compromise of a compromise, and we ultimately need to make far greater reforms if we are to right the wrongs that exist in our criminal justice system.”  – Senator Kamala Harris

The U. S. Senate this week took the most significant step toward federal criminal justice reform in decades with the passage of the First Step Act.  As the House previously had passed a nearly identical bill, and the President has committed to signing it, the First Step Act is virtually assured of becoming law.

As part of our goal for every American to have an equal right and responsibility to fully participate in our democracy, and all people to have a right to justice and fairness, the National Urban League has been on the forefront of criminal justice reform for decades. Over the last year, we have worked closely with members of Congress to craft the bill and garner support.
The Act would make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 – reducing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences – retroactive. As many as 2,600 federal inmates, could see their sentences reduced.

It would ease mandatory minimum sentences under federal law, including the “three strikes” rule.  It increases “good time credits” and “earned time credits” that inmates can earn. It applies retroactively, potentially qualifying 4,000 inmates for release the day the bill goes into effect. In addition to reducing overcrowding, the vocational and rehabilitative programs that earn inmates credit have been shown to reduce the likelihood a participant will re-offend.

The bill also requires inmates to be housed within 500 miles of their families when possible, and prohibits the shackling of inmates while they are pregnant, giving birth or in postpartum recovery.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the bill is the far-ranging support it has received across the political spectrum in this era of deep partisan polarization. It passed in the Senate by a vote of 7-12, while the House version passed earlier this year by a vote of  360-59.

Presidential advisory Jared Kusher, who took a leading role in the effort, said “For all those who are deserving of a second chance, this legislation will make a meaningful and measurable difference in their lives.”:

Conservative Senator Mike Lee of Utah wrote, “My time as a prosecutor also tells me that not every criminal is dangerous or incapable of living a productive life. My faith as a Christian teaches me that many people are capable of redemption. And my instincts as a conservative make me believe that the government can be reformed to work better.”

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey wrote, “For the first time in a long time, with the passage of this bill into law, our country will make a meaningful break from the decades of failed policies that led to mass incarceration, which has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, drained our economy, compromised public safety, hurt our children, and disproportionately harmed communities of color while devaluing the very idea of justice in America.”

As its name implies, the Act is hardly the comprehensive reform America needs. We continue to work for elimination of cash bail for non-violent crimes, and more support for reentry programs like our Urban Reentry Jobs Program.  And much more work remains to be done at the state level, where the vast majority of sentencing and incarceration takes place.

But the First Step Act represents a remarkable achievement of bipartisan cooperation, and we congratulate and thank the Congress members, staff and fellow civil rights organizations who helped to make it happen.

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