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Analysis

Historic Criminal Justice Reform Legislation Signed into Law

The FIRST STEP Act marks progress toward reducing mass incarceration

December 21, 2018

Update 12/21 1:10 pm: Pres­id­ent Trump has signed the FIRST STEP Act into law. 

Update 12/20 2:15pm: The House passed the bill Thursday by an over­whelm­ing vote of 358–36. It now goes to Pres­id­ent Trump’s desk. 

The Senate approved on Tues­day the most substan­tial crim­inal justice reform legis­la­tion in a gener­a­tion. The bipar­tisan bill, known as the FIRST STEP Act, will shorten some unne­ces­sar­ily long federal prison sentences and enforce rules that will improve condi­tions for people currently in prison.

The 87–12 tally included substan­tial support from both Repub­lic­ans and Demo­crats. Senat­ors Chuck Grass­ley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have been two of the lead­ing advoc­ates in Congress behind the bill. It will now go to the House where it’s expec­ted to pass. Pres­id­ent Donald Trump, too, has said he supports the meas­ure.

“This is a big deal," said Inimai Chet­tiar, the director of the Bren­nan Center’s Justice program. “Today, the Senate unequi­voc­ally spoke out against our coun­try’s addic­tion to mass incar­cer­a­tion. By passing the FIRST STEP Act, lawmakers are back­ing long-over­due fixes to some of the most broken parts of our justice system that for too long have been overly-punit­ive and down­right unfair.” 

One major accom­plish­ment of the FIRST STEP Act is that it includes mean­ing­ful senten­cing reform provi­sions. Address­ing senten­cing laws is crit­ical to any efforts to reduce mass incar­cer­a­tion, one of the defin­ing civil rights issues in the United States today. The U.S. has less than five percent of the global popu­la­tion but almost 25 percent of its prison popu­la­tion, and mass incar­cer­a­tion places a dispro­por­tion­ate burden on communit­ies of color. 

The Bren­nan Center has been work­ing to reform federal senten­cing law for over half a decade. A 2016 Bren­nan Center report found that nearly 40 percent of pris­on­ers are incar­cer­ated without a public safety bene­fit. That number is likely to come down as a result of the new meas­ure.

The passage of the FIRST STEP Act takes place amid wide­spread public support for crim­inal justice reform across the polit­ical spec­trum. In a 2017 survey, 71 percent of Amer­ic­ans, includ­ing a major­ity of Trump voters, agreed about the import­ance of redu­cing the coun­try’s prison popu­la­tion. But the bill faced — and ulti­mately over­came — some seri­ous polit­ical hurdles. The success of the First Step Act should push reform-minded lawmakers and candid­ates to cham­pion bolder propos­als in the lead-up to the 2020 campaign.

(Image: Classen Rafael/EyeEm)