On Tuesday night, a Republican-dominated Senate passed First Step, paving the way for the criminal justice reform bill to clear the House and be signed into law by Donald Trump. The bipartisan bill, which was overwhelmingly passed in an 87-12 vote, is widely considered to the most substantial legislation affecting the federal prison system in decades.
As the New York Times reports, the legislation packages together a number of reforms aimed at reducing recidivism and draconian sentences for people locked up in federal prisons.
Under the bill, thousands of federal inmates will be able to have their sentences reduced immediately, and early-release programs and job training will be expanded. Mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders would also be reduced, and judges will be given more freedom to go around mandatory minimums. The bill also ends the practice of shackling pregnant inmates in federal prison, as well as prohibits juvenile solitary confinement in “almost all cases” according to the Times.
The new legislation has been in the works since Barack Obama was in office and has drawn a wide swath of support from liberals and conservatives. Kim Kardashian and Jared Kushner have publicly supported the bill (with Kushner, in particular, being credited with orchestrating Trump’s support), as have the American Civil Liberties Union and a Koch brothers-backed group, Right on Crime.
Because race and America’s penal system are so deeply intertwined, the First Step bill would theoretically have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. The Times noted that one provision of the bill could decrease the sentences of “several thousand drug offenders serving lengthy sentences for crack-cocaine offenses.” During the “War on Drugs” era, black crack dealers were punished far more heavily than white offenders dealing coke.
Even a senator like Ted “bury me under a queso fountain” Cruz wasn’t afraid to put that at the forefront in his comments last night.
However, the bill does have considerable limits. As Vox and other publications note, the majority of those imprisoned in the U.S. are sitting in state prisons, not federal ones.
Questions also remain about several key parts of the legislation, including a plan for a “time credit” system, which inmates could use to reduce their sentences or go into alternate forms of custody, like home confinement.
The system would use an algorithm to initially determine who can cash in earned time credits, with inmates deemed higher risk excluded from cashing in, although not from earning the credits (which they could then cash in if their risk level is reduced).
But algorithms can perpetuate racial and class disparities that are already deeply embedded in the criminal justice system. For instance, an algorithm that excludes someone from earning credits due to previous criminal history may overlook that black and poor people are more likely to be incarcerated for crimes even when they’re not more likely to actually commit those crimes.
Undocumented immigrants and people convicted of high-level offenses would also be excluded from earning credits, writes Vox.
But even with these caveats, the changes introduced in the First Step bill are significant, bolstering a trend that has emerged in cities like Tulsa, Okla., and St. Louis, where mass incarceration has had such devastating effects on communities and resources that it’s become a bipartisan issue. And while the bill has its limits, criminal justice advocates believe the reforms it brings to the federal prison system could push more states to adopt similar changes.