Civil Rights Groups Criticize Tepid Prison Reform Bill

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“Momentum for sentencing reform is being derailed by a Trump Administration effort that is misguided, ideological, and outdated,” said former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.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.