Senate passes the First Step Act with notable bipartisan support. What comes next?
This past Tuesday, the Senate passed the First Step Act with much bipartisan support. The bill provides the most significant reforms for federal prisoners in the criminal justice system in decades, although critics point out that given the “tough on crime” anti-Black rhetoric both parties have been trafficking in, that isn’t much.The bill would not only reduce mandatory life sentences for some federal offenders, who make up a small percentage of all inmates, it would also grant judges more freedom in specific cases to trim higher minimum sentences. It also provides and expands job training and early-release programs to reduce recidivism rates.
House leaders vowed to approve the bill. Last month, President Trump supported the measure and pledged to sign the bill.
The First Step Act gained approval from many notable leaders on both sides of the political spectrum, such as the American Conservative Union, American Civil Liberties Union, and the Koch brothers.
According to the New York Times, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said, “This bill in its entirety has been endorsed by the political spectrum of America. I can’t remember any bill that has this kind of support, left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican.”
“We’re not just talking about money. We’re talking about human potential,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican. “We’re investing in the men and women who want to turn their lives around once they’re released from prison, and we’re investing in so doing in stronger and more viable communities.”
Trump celebrated his bipartisan win on Twitter, writing, “Congratulations to the Senate on the bi-partisan passing of a historic Criminal Justice Reform Bill… This will keep our communities safer.”
….This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it. In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
But the measure has also received stiff opposition. Trump’s last Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who was fired, fiercely opposed the bill. Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana introduced firmer amendments that would limit which offenders qualified for early release programs. All their amendments were shot down.
While the bill provides important reforms for the federal prison population, the bill will not directly affect state prisons, where the vast majority prisoners are incarcerated.
Because of this, and the many years of much stronger criminalization policies in the opposite direction, many also noted that the bill would not mean much if it wasn’t followed with stronger reforms.
Senator Kamala Harris tweeted, “To be clear, the FIRST STEP Act is very much just that — a first step… It is a compromise of a compromise, and we ultimately need to make far greater reforms if we are to right the wrongs that exist in our criminal justice system… place more prohibitions on private prisons which profit from the incarceration of individuals, and further limit the use of electronic monitoring.”
But, to be clear, the FIRST STEP Act is very much just that – a first step. It is a compromise of a compromise, and we ultimately need to make far greater reforms if we are to right the wrongs that exist in our criminal justice system.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) December 17, 2018