Amid all of the sound and fury in Washington, our leaders recently took time out from their scratching and clawing and actually did something good.
In a rare outbreak of bipartisan cooperation, Congress, with President Trump’s signature, passed a landmark criminal justice reform bill.
Known as the First Step Act, the bill was supported by both Republican and Democratic legislators, including minority and libertarian-leaning leaders, as well as the National Urban League, the NAACP, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and the American Civil Liberties Union. Some of these groups can hardly agree on the day of the week. But they all recognized the need for changes to the U.S. justice system, where the nation’s war on drugs has exploded the prison population and failed to help offenders prepare for their return to society.
The legislation gives federal judges more leeway when sentencing some drug offenders and boosts prisoner rehabilitation efforts, including programs designed to reduce the risk of recidivism. It also dents “three strikes” policies, reducing life sentences for some drug offenders with three convictions to 25 years. And it allows about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 — which the courts have treated more harshly than powder cocaine offenses — the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty.
The more lenient sentencing will not be made available to individuals who were also convicted of violent firearms offenses, sexual exploitation of children or high-level heroin and fentanyl dealing.
Given the political polarization that seems to be the norm these days, it’s somewhat surprising that such diverse groups could come together in agreement. Perhaps the incarceration rate was just too glaring — and costly — to ignore any longer. The U.S. comprises 5 percent of the world’s population, but its prisons house 21 percent of the world’s inmates, more than 2.2 million, according to the NAACP.
Much credit for passing the bill goes to White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, whose father, Charles Kushner, served 14 months in an Alabama federal prison for tax evasion, witness tampering and making illegal donations. “Jared is committed in a way you can only be when you’ve seen your daddy hurt,” CNN host Van Jones told The New York Times.
Despite strong support for the bill — the vote was 87-12 in the Senate and 358-36 in the House — all of North Carolina’s delegation voted in favor. Those few who dissented, both on the left and the right, complained that it goes too far or not far enough. Some liberal advocates for the bill were questioned for cooperating with a president seen by many as racist.
But Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., called criminal justice reform “the defining civil rights issue of this era.”
“I believe with all my heart, if Dr. Martin Luther King was alive, he would have been in that meeting,” Jackson said. “And he would have been advocating for the voiceless instead of playing politics and personality games.”
With a name like “the First Step Act,” we hope that it will be the beginning of a reform movement that makes for a more equitable justice system.