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Sentencing reforms are aptly named – a first step

Congress appears poised to enact significant criminal justice reforms. The First Step Act would scale back harsh sentences for some drug crimes, improve prison conditions and provide more help for prisoners when they re-enter society.

It is a good first step. And a hopeful sign for bipartisanship in Congress. But it’s not an overhaul of the justice system. There is still much more work to do, even if this welcome legislation passes.

What impact would the First Step Act have?

The First Step Act has attracted strange bedfellows. President Trump, the Republican leadership and the conservative Koch brothers are on board. The bill is also supported by law enforcement groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others. The only detractors are hardcore law-and-order types who don’t want to “give an inch” to criminals and some Democrats who don’t think the reforms go far enough.

Here are a few of the highlights of the current proposals:

It’s a first step, but more reform is needed at the state and national level

Not all of the changes are retroactive, which mutes the effect. The changes will apply only to a fraction of the 181,000 people currently housed in federal prisons. And the First Step Act will not help the 90 percent of inmates who are sentenced to state jails and prisons.

The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any nation. In particular, we devote far more resources to punishing drug offenses than we do to preventing and treating drug addiction.

But we can all cautiously celebrate a good first step.