Congress has a chance to end a nasty political year on a more uplifting note by enacting a far-reaching compromise on criminal justice reforms hammered out by a bipartisan group of legislators that has gathered unusually widespread support.
The First Step Act represents a thoughtful approach to criminal justice that applies tough standards where needed, but which recognizes that the current system is badly flawed. Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes, you’re out” and other practices have resulted in the U.S. having the highest incarceration rate in the world. More than 2 million people are behind bars at any given time. The cost to taxpayers is staggering — an estimated $80 billion just on corrections systems.
The proposed act would give judges more latitude on mandatory minimums; provide funding for rehabilitative, educational and training services; and create strong incentives to prisoners to take advantage of them by offering “time credits” that could reduce sentences for inmates committed to changing their ways. Pregnant inmates could not be shackled while they gave birth, and prisoners would be located within 500 miles of their families. It would reduce the sentencing guideline disparities between crack and powder cocaine.
President Donald Trump has lent his support, calling the package a set of “reasonable sentencing reforms” that showed “true bipartisanship is possible.”
And yet, serious roadblocks remain. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been lukewarm about the bill’s chances, saying it was up to members to pull together the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster. Some conservatives, such as Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., remain staunchly opposed.
That is frustrating even frequent conservative allies, such as Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers, who also support First Step. Jason Flohrs, director of the Minnesota chapter, told an editorial writer that “this is a once-in-a-generation bill. We’ve got the statistics to prove that what we’re proposing works. We’ve built great bipartisan support. We can’t let it fall victim now to the usual partisan games. We all know the system we have now is not working.”
The coalition behind this bill is broad indeed, ranging from the American Conservative Union to the Campaign for Black Male Achievement and Minnesota’s Second Chance Coalition. All agree that overly long sentences for nonviolent offenders, harsh prison conditions and the lack of attention and guidance for those re-entering society after criminal sentences have made prison reform a moral, constitutional and fiscal imperative.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., worked on the legislation. A former Hennepin County prosecutor, she said the bill “finds an effective balance between keeping our communities safe and ensuring the fair administration of justice. The federal sentencing and prison reforms in this bill have broad support, including from national police organizations because they know this legislation keeps significant penalties in place for violent offenders. This compromise bill is an important opportunity that shouldn’t be lost.”
Republican lawmakers, in the waning months of their lock on power, have the opportunity to show they can work with the other side to make positive change. They shouldn’t pass it up.