I spend a lot of time here criticizing our current administration in Washington, so it is only right that I highlight a true achievement (however rare they may be).
On December 21st, President Trump signed the First Step Act into law. While much of the country has begun to recognize the detrimental impact of decades of politicians tripping over themselves to write laws to show how tough on crime they are, despite the efficacy or collateral consequences and costs, the federal government has lagged far behind. Mandatory minimums in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines have crippled the federal judiciary’s ability to dole out punishments that actually fit the crime and, not surprisingly, the federal prison population has skyrocketed. This bill is an important “first step,” both practically and symbolically, toward becoming smarter, not tougher, in the way we deal with federal crimes.
First, the bill eliminates some of the most draconian portions of mandatory minimum sentencing and attempts to focus on maintaining the worst penalties for the worst offenders. The bill returns some judicial discretion by reducing the mandatory minimum penalties under 21 U.S.C. 841 & 851. The group of individuals eligible for a deviation from mandatory minimums under so-called “safety valve” provisions is expanded. The mandatory minimum provision of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) is clarified to apply only to individuals with a prior conviction for firearm use, not first time offenders. The Fair Sentencing act of 2010 that sought to rectify the wildly disproportionate sentencing for rock versus powder cocaine is made retroactive so that people sentenced before 2010 can now petition for resentencing.
Additionally and importantly, the bill follows the lead of California and other states in remembering the rehabilitative goal of incarceration. Programming for inmates is expanded. Evidence based anti-recidivism initiatives are expanded and inmates are incentivized with increased credits for participation. The federal prison industries program is expanded to allow inmates more opportunities for employment and training. Inmates are now mandated to be housed no more than 500 miles from their primary residence, making it easier to maintain familial bonds so that an inmate does not lose their support network.
There are certainly numerous reforms still needed, but as the aptly named bill suggests, this is a first step toward long overdue reform. It is my hope, based on President Trump’s enthusiastic support for this legislation (he pushed Speaker McConnell to bring the bill to a vote over McConnell’s objections) and the favorable response from the press and the public, that this will indeed be only the first step of many in returning some sanity to our federal criminal justice system.
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