It seemed impossible for the Koch Brothers and the American Civil Liberties Union to champion a common bill. It seemed even more unlikely that congressional Republicans and Democrats could cooperate for a common cause. Nevertheless, in December 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill, by the shockingly-bipartisan 87 votes in the Senate and 360 in the House.
The bill has several admirable provisions. It eases inmates’ ability to earn sentence reductions for good behavior, provides more work training opportunities and invests in re-entry programs for released prisoners. Judges can be more lenient in mandatory minimum sentencing in the case of nonviolent drug crimes. Importantly, longstanding disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing — a moral failure that has predominantly affected black communities — has been reduced. With the new provisions, nearly 4,000 inmates were slated for early release immediately after the bill’s passage.
Many have rightfully lauded the achievements made by the First Step Act. But despite the bill’s important strides in ameliorating America’s shameful criminal justice system, the First Step Act needs significant strengthening. Its bipartisan sheen risks obfuscating the glaring injustices left unaddressed by the legislation.
First, the First Step Act only applies to federal prisons, though state prisons and local jails house 90 percent of the U.S. prison population. Since states and localities have wide latitude in determining carceral policy, massive reforms must take place within individual states and localities to see large-scale in the American criminal justice system.The statistics are dire — U.S. incarceration rates have increased by 700 percent since 1970 despite crime rates dropping, African-American males face incarceration at six times the rate of white males, and the carceral state has perpetuated generations of poverty. Without reforms at the state and local level — incentivizing prosecutors to reduce recidivism rates, decriminalizing low-level drug offences, prioritizing rehabilitation for minor crimes — our country’s incarceration crisis will continue largely unabated.
Second, the law ignores the pervasive use of private prisons in the United States. In for-profit prisons, inmates are subjected to atrocious conditions. Private prison company GEO Group spent $1.2 million lobbying for the act and poses to profit from its passage. Without an increased federal crackdown on the private prison industry — a move former Attorney General Jeff Sessions emphatically declined to pursue when he reversed an Obama-era ban on private prisons — the private prison industry stands to gain from the First Step Act. Obama-era bans on private prisons must be reinstated.
Third, the most severe democratic causality of mass incarceration, the disenfranchisement of former felons, remains at large. Over six million Americans are currently disenfranchised due to a former felony conviction — compared to one in 56 non-black voters, one in 13 Black Americans cannot vote. Only strong federal action can ensure this constitutional right for formerly incarcerated individuals. Even when states like Florida have used constitutional amendments to restore voting rights, opponents — in Florida’s case, the GOP-controlled state legislature — instituted policies to complicate former inmates’ path to enfranchisement. Robust federal provisions to secure and protect former felons’ right to vote are nowhere to be found in the First Step Act.
Thankfully, as Washington Post columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel has noted, Democratic presidential candidates have rallied to the issue of criminal justice reform, making them prominent focal points in their campaigns. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has proposed legalizing marijuana at the federal level and raising funds available for public defenders. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has overtly called the criminal justice system “racist” and called for reform and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has advocated using federal power to eliminate cash bail. Such attention to criminal justice reform bodes well for keeping the issue on the top of voters’ minds.
Still, we must ensure pressure is put on candidates — presidential, state and local — to continue the fight for federal criminal justice reform, lest interest wane in the wake of the bipartisan polish of the First Step Act. Without enough attention, the moral calamity of the American criminal justice system will continue unaddressed.
Jack Wilkins is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.