On May 22, the House of Representatives managed to pass the First Step Act prison reform by a vote of 360 to 59, an unheard of margin in today’s deeply divided Congress. The bill is a long-overdue attempt to at least begin to reform the way those caught up in the criminal justice system are treated while in prison and how they are prepared to live once they have paid their debt to society.
The margin was even more impressive because many of the reforms included in the act enjoyed the active support of the Trump White House. President Trump had urged his son-in-law Jared Kushner to host meetings with criminal justice reform advocates on both the left and right. The proposals included in the act which the president has pledged to sign if it reaches his desk reflect a universal cross-ideological recognition that while there might not be enough support in Congress to fix everything or even most of what’s wrong with the system that reality should not prevent adoption of those reforms that enjoy broad bipartisan support.
After a series of White House meetings, criminal justice reform advocates as different as leftist Dream Corps chair Van Jones and conservative former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli supported the bill.
Most criminal justice reform in recent years has taken place at the state rather than the federal level. Current Republican governors like Kentucky’s Matt Bevin, Oklahoma’s Mary Fallon, Georgia’s Nathan Deal along with a former Republican governor like Texas’ Rick Perry have instituted bipartisan reforms that cut prison costs, sentences and recidivism in their states.
Democratic governors have also been sporadically successful in reforming their prison policies as well, so the states have served as laboratories, testing the impact of various policy alternatives, but even as many of the reforms have been judged successful, Congress has proved less than willing to make similar changes in the way our federal prisons are run.
That is, until the story of what goes on in our prisons reached Mr. Trump. President Trump, like others who have stopped to listen to advocates of prison reform, decided to do something. His concern came as something of a shock to those who instinctively oppose proposals from this White House, but his active support for the reforms, modest though they may be, has persuaded even some of his most partisan critics that on this at least his concern is heartfelt.
Still, some on the left are opposed to the First Step Act because the legislation doesn’t go far enough and a few on the right can’t help but see anything that smacks of rehabilitation and humane treatment of those we lock up in our prisons as coddling criminals.
Under current law and practice, for example, women must be shackled to their beds while giving birth. Few prisoners have access to life skills or job training to prepare them for their eventual re-entry into society and many are incarcerated thousands of miles from home and lose touch with their families as a result. The First Step Act would allow women prisoners to give birth without being shackled, require that prisoners be incarcerated within 500 miles of their homes if possible and require the government to do a risk assessment that will help separate the dangerous and career criminals from those who might be more easily rehabilitated.
There is no question that some who advocate criminal justice reform are unrealistic or driven by an agenda that has little regard for public safety or that some who defend the current system care little about the way prisoners caught up in an imperfect system are treated. To most, however, criminal justice reform is not simply a partisan issue; men and women of goodwill in both parties do care about both justice and safety and see the act as a way to enhance both. Ken Cuccinelli once observed that, the justice system doesn’t pay nearly as much attention to “justice” as it should, and in the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the modern world, that affects everyone.
Still, experts give the House version little chance of passing the Senate. Senators want the First Step Act to be merged into a broader bill dealing with sentencing as well as prison reform, but proponents of the First Step Act believe a merged bill is unlikely to make it to the president’s desk.
One can only hope that reason will prevail in the Senate. Those who want it all should note that the bill has been dubbed the First Step Act, not the Only or Last Step Act. Those who seek broader reforms should get what they can get today — and work for a justified and long overdue Second Step tomorrow.
They should resist the temptation to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
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