President Trump did the right thing by throwing his support behind the long over-due and exceedingly difficult task of revamping our Federal criminal sentencing laws and prisoner re-entry programs, even though many within the Trump camp, including the recently canned Attorney General, have been unsympathetic to reform efforts.
Trump’s backing of the reform package won rare praise from many on the left, including Illinois Senator Richard Durbin. Even left-wing commentator Van Jones gave the President a nod of approval. “I think you’ve got to give him some credit on this one…I’ll give him a salute and applause.” Jones was referring to Trump’s endorsement of the First Step Act, a bill that Trump praised, saying the bill includes reasonable sentencing reforms while keeping dangerous and violent criminals off our streets. Perhaps chastened by the recent midterm election and the loss of the House of Representatives, Trump pointed to his endorsement of the First Step Act as “proof that true bipartisanship is possible.”
Trump’s support provides much needed cover for members of Congress in both parties to get on with the job of overhauling the regressive Clinton 1994 anti-crime law that wound up being particularly brutal to African American and Latino offenders. The First Step Act would reduce criminal penalties for many offenders and make it easier for many of those who have been incarcerated to find work upon their release from Federal prison.
Two generally partisan Senators, Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., sang an unprecedented duet of tribute to President Trump issuing a joint statement praising Trump’s position.
“President Trump’s endorsement of the bipartisan criminal justice reform compromise is an important step in our shared effort to promote safe communities and improve justice. By preparing inmates bound for release to become productive citizens, we can reduce crime and the social and economic cost of incarceration. And by ensuring that punishments fit the crimes, we can better balance the scales of justice.”
Earlier this year the House passed, on a bi-partisan basis, part of the reform package with 360 votes — including 226 Republicans and 134 Democrats.
Apparently, Jared Kushner who has long championed the case for criminal justice reform, was instrumental in winning the President’s support. The legislative reform package will, ultimately, require sixty votes in the Senate, a task that Senate Democrats believe is attainable with White House support. This is all quite significant. Passage of the legislation would represent the most sweeping changes to the federal criminal justice system in a quarter century.
Supporters of the reform effort hope the measure can be brought to a vote during the lame-duck session of Congress between now and January, before partisan bickering could well doom a positive and long overdue correction to the current law. Passage of First Step would mean thousands of prisoners in the Federal system would get help moving forward after they completed their sentences. It would also mean that those who served their time without causing trouble in prison could win earlier release. Perhaps most significant it would also mean that thousands of offenders arrested for drug crimes in the future would avoid the harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Ironically, it is the federal prison system which houses only 183,000 prisoners, out of a total incarcerated population of 1.5 million, that has lagged in introducing criminal justice reform. State prison systems, which house most of our incarcerated citizens, are where reform efforts have been progressing the most and with good results. States have succeeded in reducing both their prison populations as well as crime rates.
Koch-related Freedom Partners Chairman, Mark Holden says, “the only reason we’ve gotten to the point of these federal reforms, which we think will be transformative, is the fact that states have applied them and have data they can point to that can persuade the tough-on-crime crowd. It is hard to argue against hard data.”
So, exactly what would the First Step Act do:
The First Step Act would retroactively relieve the sentencing disparity for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenders who were sentenced before 2010 when legislation first addressed that disparity.
The First Step Act also improves the way the U.S. Bureau of Prisons calculates the amount of “good-time credit” for prisoners who stay out of trouble behind bars.
First Step also gives prisoners an incentive to participate in training and educational programs by awarding them points that speed their release to halfway houses or home confinement.
In addition to helping certain people who are behind bars, the First Step Act addresses some aspects of the system’s “front end” — the laws that guide how prison sentences are determined. First Step greatly liberalizes the discretion judges have to diverge from mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, which many consider to be the most significant element of the legislation.
First Step would also restrict a prosecutor’s ability to seek longer sentences in cases where an offender possessed a gun, which could have been in his car or in his pocket during the commission of a drug transaction, even though the weapon wasn’t used in the commission of the offense. This provision in current law often adds as much as twenty-five years to a sentence.
President Trump, who can expect little credit for supporting this long over-due bi-partisan effort at criminal justice reform, which would have little chance of passing without his support (no Democrat showed up at his announcement of support), did the right thing. We give him a thumbs up on this one.
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