On Tuesday, the First Step Act passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, 87-12. If it passes the vote in the House of Representatives, as experts predict it will, then President Trump has pledged to sign it into law.
Proponents of the Bill praise it as sensible criminal justice reform. Among its provisions, it will offer a number of changes aimed at inmate rehabilitation: more good-time credits to federal prisoners, more training and work opportunities, and the chance to earn money for escrow accounts that would service post-release expenses. There are a number of sentencing reforms as well, including giving judges more flexibility on “mandatory minimums,” where the conviction is for nonviolent drug crime. Importantly, estimates are that this relaxation could result in the reduction of sentences for 2,000 people every year. SB3649 also addresses the disparity in charges for crack and powder cocaine offenses which have historically disproportionately targeted black Americans – finally making the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive for 2,600 inmates. In addition, it also promises to ban the shackling of pregnant inmates.
However, the Bill is not without its criticisms. Backed by the Koch brothers, the Bill is designed to benefit the private prison companies, such as the multibillion-dollar giant GEO that currently runs the detention facilities warehousing immigrant families in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas. By increasing the use of electronic monitoring of those released, it will increase their bottom line. The bill also prevents sentence reduction for those sentenced for violent crimes, excluding them from participation in the same rehabilitative programs. And though the bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences prospectively, it does not have any retroactive effect on those already serving such sentences. Finally, excepting extreme circumstances, the shackling of pregnant women has been banned in federal prison since 2008. The bill’s promise to solve this ‘problem,’ is disingenuous. Indeed, according to the Marshall Project, many of the provisions in the act are merely attempts to enact policies that are already in place – but have simply been ignored by the Bureau of Prisons.
There are also significant limitations to the scope of the Bill as well. It does not remove the threat of federal prosecution in states where cannabis is legal, or lift restrictions on federally insured banks, currently barred from working with cannabusinesses. Senator Cory Gardner had worked diligently to add such an amendment, but he was blocked by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It is also worth nothing that the roughly 2 million prisoners in local and state custody will not be affected because it only addresses the federal inmate population of approximately 181,000. Ultimately, the bill may indeed be a good “first step,” but meaningful criminal justice reform still has a long way to go.