Despite forthcoming amendments to the FIRST Step Act, supporting this criminal justice reform bill is a “no-brainer.” The bipartisan bill would promote reentry-focused correctional programming, provide more appropriate mechanisms to address overburdensome sentencing schemes and proffer solutions for both compassionate release and dignity for incarcerated women. This is more than simply good politics, it is good policy.
Small changes to the text of the bill are being offered as amendments this week in order to garner additional support from law enforcement agencies and undecided Senators.
In short, the amendments describe exceptions for certain types of crime that would have otherwise been eligible to benefit from the FIRST Step Act’s provisions. For example, the new changes would exclude certain individuals—those who have been convicted of certain sex crimes, of crimes involving a firearm or of crimes involving high-quantity drug trafficking—from receiving the revised earned-time, or “good time,” credit provisions . Another change would require the Bureau of Prisons to end prerelease custody for people who commit non-technical violations; in other words, those individuals who have been transferred to a halfway house would be returned to prison for committing a new criminal offense.
Importantly, the changes being proposed in the Senate are not aimed at amending the act’s mission—to ensure that the first step into prison is also the first step on the path toward successful reentry. With 95 percent of incarcerated people eventually reentering society, providing programming and services during incarceration is not only the best way to equip a returning citizen with necessary life and work skills, but also is a true reinvestment in our communities that will promote public safety and economic boons.
Passing the FIRST Step Act will be a significant accomplishment. Of course, the actual provisions of the bill will support reentry programming, redress overly strict sentencing provisions and provide for much-needed reforms like compassionate release and dignity for incarcerated women. Furthermore, passing this bipartisan bill in 2018 has the capacity to, in a small way, bridge the divide between the left and the right. By coming together now and showing a mutual desire to remedy some of the most broken aspects of our criminal justice system, our country can begin a new year with renewed hope, however small, for the future of our democracy.