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  • Writer's pictureLiveology

First Step Act

Criminal Justice Reform is long overdue in the United States, and the First Step Act, which will likely go to a vote in the Senate on Thursday, claims to be a move in the right direction for federal prisoners.

The criminal justice system in America has been disproportionately incarcerating black, brown, and poor people for generations. And often, with strict mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and laws like "three strikes you're out," these individuals are incarcerated for longer sentences than their white counterparts. Most notable of them all is the mass incarceration of black men for drug offenses related to crack cocaine. Today, 46% of inmates in federal prisons are incarcerated for drug crimes.

The biggest problem is that despite incarcerating huge numbers of people, it's not decreasing crime.  At the end of the day the recidivism rate for federal inmates is a whopping 45%, meaning that almost 1 out of 2 people leave prison without the tools necessary to get a job and integrate back into their communities. So many end up committing other crimes and wind end up going right back to prison. Thousands of people each year are released from prison in a worse state than when they came in.

So if the point of putting people in prison is just to babysit them in poor conditions at at great expense, we're doing a great job. But if we want to actually make our communities safer it's not working. Because our communities are not safe as long as we are sending people back home without the proper resources to succeed. And we are doing a human rights injustice if we are using the criminal justice system to simply ruin people's lives. That should not be the point.

The First Step Act, as it looks today, offers solutions to decrease mandatory minimum sentences, improve recidivism, expand training and education programs, and improve quality of life for federal inmates.

If passed, judges would have the ability to diverge from strict mandatory minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders. The bill would also eliminate the possibility of life in prison without parole for drug offenders punished under the infamous three strikes rule, capping mandatory minimum sentences for them at 25 years. Another major provision makes the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which decreased penalties for possession of crack cocaine retroactive, meaning that it would reduce the sentences of thousands of people already in prison.

If this bill passes, thousands of federal prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses like possession would be eligible for early release, some immediately. Convicted murderers, sex offenders, terrorists, spies, and undocumented immigrants would not be eligible.

Other parts of the bill help to improve the quality of life of inmates. Provisions such as no longer shackling female inmates during childbirth and the postpartum period as well as ensuring inmates are placed in facilities within 500 driving miles from their families help to provide a more humane experience.

Even though many on both sides of the aisle are still split on whether to support this Republican driven bill, it has widespread bipartisan support from organizations such as the ACLU and the Fraternal Order of Police, Congressmen Corey Booker, John Lewis, Speaker Paul Ryan, and even President Trump.

The original version of the bill passed by a wide margin in the House this past May, despite hesitancy from liberals that the bill didn't go nearly far enough. After all, this bill only affects federal inmates, who account for less than 9% of the total 2.1 million people incarcerated in our country.

Even though this is not the groundbreaking bill that many Democrats dreamed of, this is an important step in the right direction to more just sentencing for federal drug offenses and more humane treatment for thousands of Americans in federal prison.


Image by Matt Flores
Image by Juno Jo
Image by Julianna Corbett
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