History was made on the night of December 18, 2018 when the U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan First Step Act. An Act that was years in the making, this dramatic step is poised to radically reform the American prison system – a system that has proven to be badly broken and a burden on the public. The bill passed by a landslide, with 87 in favor and 12 against.
(We have a very comprehensive analysis of the Act at Sentencing.net.)
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley hailed the victory saying, “This bill is a product of careful deliberation and input from a wide range of stakeholders and law enforcement organizations. I’m grateful for the engagement from those who joined us to pass the bill and for President Trump’s leadership.”
President Trump, and a pretty equal number of Democrats and Republicans, have publicly supported the Act.
Despite the Act’s passing being a groundbreaking event, it is not without its detractors. For example, New York’s Zak Cheney-Rice published an opinion piece called “The First Step Act Deserves Your Skepticism,” pointing out with biting criticism that, “after decades spent normalizing the existence of the world’s largest concentration of prisoners, the Overton window regarding what substantive change in the United States actually looks like has shifted so far that even modest changes seem bold and ambitious,” and that the “limitations of the First Step Act are obvious on even a cursory glance.”
While Cheney-Rice admits that some of the points of the Act he challenges (the Act leaves more than a million inmates ineligible for early release, the reforms only enhance existing policy, the ban on shacking pregnant females was already mandated in 2008), he does admit that “These are not meaningless steps.”
They certainly are not meaningless!
The First Step Act is not perfect. It’s a long document that does indeed touch on existing policy, upgrading it in minor ways or, as with the shackling, simply reinstating it. However, the broader picture shows that for the first time in a very, very long time, we have a bipartisan agreement on an issue that goes back decades, and this mutual agreement across parties with drastically different agendas was achieved under one of the most tumultuous times in recent political history. The fact that President Trump, who appears to be far more concerned with personal gain than the good of the people, threw his weight behind the bill is the icing on the cake.
Passing the First Step Act shows that Americans from all walks of life, and from different political parties, have had enough of the lopsided, unfair, racially biased, disenfranchised-targeting, tax-eating prison system and are willing to shake hands across the table as long as it brings the current system down. That is something to be celebrated.
Whether the First Step Act will sweep across the system with radical reform, or whether it turns out to be the mew of a kitten against the roar of a lion, the fact remains that the Act passed, it’s a go, and life is about to change right now for many inmates. Sure, it may leave many offenders unaffected at first, but with provisions for early pre-release for participating in recidivism programs, relocation opportunities to be closer to family, and better oversight of rewards and revocation of those rewards based on behavior, those not leaving prison soon will still benefit.
Let’s also not forget that the Act also calls for a better structure around compassionate release, mandates notifying the family when an inmate has a terminal illness, charges the Bureau of Prisons with better recordkeeping regarding the demographics of inmates, and asks for de-escalation training for BOP officers – to name just a few of the many improvements the Act has in store.
So, we say to the detractors, America did not develop its prison problem overnight – nor will the problem go away quickly with the passing of the Act. It took years of escalating problems to get where we are today, and it will take years of chipping away at the problem to correct it.
But the first chip was made on the night of December 18. And that is a start.
The Act was designed to have a cumulative effect through better recordkeeping and analysis of those records, by strengthening family units, rewarding good behavior, retraining officers, and more. As each section of the Act goes into motion, we can expect, over the long term, a great result for inmates and for the American public. If that is not a win, what is?
Christopher Zoukis, author of Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts, is the Marketing Director of Brandon Sample PLC. He can be found online at https://sentencing.net, https://compassionaterelease.com, and https://clemency.com.