The first (and hopefully not, but most likely) last Step

While the FIRST STEP Act is certainly a welcomed piece of legislation aimed at reforming the criminal justice system, there are a plethora of issues that dampen optimism for real reform. First, the positives. The Bill would make retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level. According to the Marshall Project, this could affect nearly 2,600 people. The Bill would also walk away from hardline sentencing guidelines like Mandatory minimums, the Three Strikes Law, and importantly, would restore a good deal of judicial discretion to allow Federal judges to avoid imposing these long sentences. The Bill also increases good time credits, and applies these changes retroactively. Similarly, earned time credits by participating in educational and rehabilitative programs would be increased too.

Now, the negatives. The FIRST STEP Act only affects the federal prison system, which houses ~181,000 people, which is a tiny fraction of the 2.1 million people in US jails and prisons. Further, the Bill would approve an algorithm to determine who is eligible for the earned time credits, which on its surface may not seem problematic, but is actually quite flawed. More often than not, these algorithms perpetuate racial disparities that are already rooted in many criminal justice policies that have contributed to the overrepresentation of communities of color.

All together, this Bill could be seen as demonstrating a misunderstanding of the scope and landscape of mass incarceration. Hailing something that, at best, would reduce the total prison population by 1% and claiming to have reformed the criminal justice system is misguided and damaging. This Bill doesn’t undo mass incarceration, as real reform must happen in state legislatures. To be fair, if passed, the Bill would help thousands of lives, but would not be a true success if nothing comes after. If the FIRST STEP Act is the only step, this is fake reform.  

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