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Civil Rights Groups Criticize Tepid Prison Reform Bill

After a delay, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up a prison reform bill backed by the White House but criticized by civil rights groups. Former Attorney General Eric Holder joins the Brennan Center in calling it a poor starting point in fixing the country’s broken justice system.

May 9, 2018

New York, N.Y. – After a delay, the House Judi­ciary Commit­tee this morn­ing is sched­uled to take up a prison reform bill suppor­ted by the White House but widely criti­cized by civil rights groups. Today, former Attor­ney General Eric Holder joined the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law in call­ing the bill — known as the FIRST STEP Act — a poor start­ing point that does little to repair the coun­try’s broken justice system.

“Momentum for senten­cing reform is being derailed by a Trump Admin­is­tra­tion effort that is misguided, ideo­lo­gical, and outdated,” said former U.S. Attor­ney General Eric Holder. “This narrow ‘prison reform’ bill won’t deliver the trans­form­at­ive change we need. The only way to achieve that is by passing strong, bipar­tisan, compre­hens­ive senten­cing reform.”
“This bill is an attempt by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and its allies to side­line senten­cing reform,” said Inimai Chet­tiar, the director of the Bren­nan Center’s Justice Program. “The law being considered today does noth­ing more than tinker around the edges. It’s a distrac­tion from work­ing toward the broader fixes a bipar­tisan reform coali­tion agrees are so desper­ately needed. Senten­cing reform would help us reduce mass incar­cer­a­tion, one of the most press­ing civil rights issues of our time.”

“This new bill is mostly a retread of the Prison Reform and Redemp­tion Act, which we also criti­cized as an insuf­fi­cient step toward ending mass incar­cer­a­tion,” said Ames Grawert, senior coun­sel in the Bren­nan Center’s Justice Program. “Worse, the system the bill sets up for recidiv­ism reduc­tion program­ming may end up exag­ger­at­ing racial dispar­it­ies in the crim­inal justice system. This is an espe­cially worry­ing concern since Attor­ney General Jeff Sessions will have a hand in imple­ment­a­tion.”

The Bren­nan Center sent a letter this week to the Commit­tee’s lead­er­ship urging them to recon­sider the bill, as did the Lead­er­ship Confer­ence on Civil and Human Rights, NAACP, ACLU, and other groups. Both letters say the bill largely paral­lels inad­equate legis­la­tion the Commit­tee was plan­ning to consider last week but then scrapped follow­ing oppos­i­tion from the Bren­nan Center, civil rights groups, and law enforce­ment lead­ers.

To connect with a Bren­nan Center expert, contact Rebecca Autrey at or 646–292–8316.