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:

  • Crack cocaine amnesty – Drug sentencing laws enacted in the 1990s harshly punished crack while giving relatively light sentences for powder cocaine. This had a disproportionate impact on African-Americans. The disparity was fixed in 2010. The new law would make those changes retroactive, allowing thousands of people still imprisoned under the old crack guidelines to petition for release.
  • Three strikes – The “three strikes” law triggered life in prison for a third felony conviction. Many people were sent to prison for relatively minor third offenses, and there was often racial disparity in who got life sentences. The new law reduces the three strikes penalty from life in prison to 25 years.
  • Mandatory minimums – The First Step Act would shorten mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and give judges more leeway to exempt certain cases. It would also limit the enhancement (extra prison time) for possessing a firearm while committing a crime.
  • Prison conditions – The Bureau of Prisons would be required to provide feminine hygiene products to female inmates, and could no longer shackle pregnant inmates.
  • Prison proximity – The Bureau of Prisons would have to place prisoners as close to their homes as possible.
  • Transition to the outside world – Prisoners would get better job training programs and stronger incentives for re-entering their communities. Inmates could earn good behavior credits toward halfway houses or home confinement in lieu of serving their whole term in prison.

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.