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FIRST STEP RIGHT STEP: IMPROVING OUR CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM


There are problems plaguing our criminal justice system. Some require quick fixes, some need shifts in social dogma, and others require more in-depth analysis. As Congress prepares to divert back to a divided branch of government, there is a bipartisan effort to enact modest changes aimed at addressing some of the problematic areas. The First Step Act, which will soon make its way to President Trump's desk, seeks to address specific problems with the federal justice system, hoping to reduce recidivism and increase equity for criminals not deemed a threat to society.

The First Step Act is a bipartisan piece of legislation, supported by a broad base of conservatives and liberals alike, which makes modest changes to the federal criminal justice system. The bill reduces disparities in sentencing for similar drug offenses, provides greater flexibility in sentencing for federal judges, and affords a path towards atonement for inmates no longer deemed a threat to society. Like other bills that become law, the First Step Act is not the perfect bill, but a modest attempt at correcting certain issues surrounding the federal justice system.

There is not a single American who does not want to live in safe communities and amongst trustworthy neighbors. Policymakers would see strong opposition to any attempt to simply open prison doors to appease a political sect or save a couple dollars. There are areas where society should consider whether prolonged imprisonment is appropriate for safe communities and correctional needs of the impacted criminal. Additionally, the removal of inequities in sentencing should be addressed, especially if there are biases or inappropriate disparities. Affording opportunities for inmates to proactively champion their future should be encouraged as well.

What can one reasonably expect from the First Step Act? The proposed legislation reduces sentencing variances between crack and cocaine offenders, reduces maximum sentences for nonviolent offenders, provides flexibility to judges in sentencing structure, and affords additional time reduction for inmates that participate in programs approved by either the warden of the federal facility or federal bureau of prisons. Somewhat modest changes. But there are legitimate concerns with certain areas of the bill.

Before delving into the problem areas, let us start with what is good in the bill. Proponents of efforts to reduce variances between crack and cocaine finally see progress. While both drugs are highly destructive to individuals, there are disparities in sentencing some blame on racial biases. On average, cocaine offenders receive less time than crack offenders. Stereotypically, cocaine is more commonly associated with whites and crack associated with blacks. There may be some differences in the drug effects, but violation penalties should be similar for the same level offenses.

The handing down sentences that far surpass any reasonable expectation of the natural life of the inmate feels excessive. While this ensures the inmate remains in custody if a technicality is found on one but not all charges, the simple life without parole appears enough. For non-violent offenses, the sentencing should never be stacked. There crimes may be impactful, but the offense did not cause direct harm to the lives or safety of anyone in society. Ideally, non-violent crimes like tax evasion should never received prison sentences, as one cannot repay debts owed while imprisoned.  

Sen. Tom Cotton raised specific objections and concerns over the First Step Act, largely based on the inclusion of certain violent crime and the level of bureaucratic freedom provided to government to shape the outcome of the bill. While some proponents of the bill ignore Sen. Cotton’s alarm, his points are reasonable and valid. The prescribed focus of the movement is to protect non-violent offenders, but certain violent offenders may be allowed to participate. Although the examples would most likely be violators of state law, reviewers may need to consider all convictions or establish extended criteria for these groups.

The practice of allowing unelected bureaucrats the freedom to shape the implementation of passed legislation diverts responsibility away from where the public prefers it to be. One can reasonably assume that the Federal Bureau of Corrections or any federal prison warden would not seek to set lax standards for release, the standards should be contained in the legislation and not susceptible to bureaucrats that can skew lawmakers’ intentions. Bureaucrats may have greater knowledge base on issues, like criminal justice, but they can impart their knowledge by advocacy during the lawmaking, rather than outside of the oversight scope. People elected legislators to craft law and perform oversight during the implementation of said law. Shirking responsibility to the executive branch can be troublesome.

Proponents of the efforts focus greatly on the need to reduce recidivism, which makes prison doors a common home for repeat offenders. Without economic opportunities or a reliable support group available outside of prison, many may find themselves right back home to what they know best. Programs needs to instill career skills, life skills and coaching, and rehabilitative counseling to prevent backpedaling to crime. Prison wardens will determine the standards of these programs, where hopefully many find effective ways to correct the attitudes, values, and behaviors that leads to repeat offenses.

The First Step Act is a modest step forward that may require some fixes in the future. Our views on crime and punishment need to evolve towards finding ways to help inmates champion their path for atonement. The First Step is the right step.


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