Within hours after the First Step Act went into effect last Friday, 3,100 inmates qualified for release from long federal prison sentences imposed at a time when harsh, get-tough measures were seen as the only way to combat crime. The act made good on a much-needed, bipartisan effort, supported by President Donald Trump, to introduce sweeping criminal justice reforms and try a more constructive approach to rehabilitation.
The First Step Act should give hope to Americans from across the political spectrum who worry that growing partisan acrimony means nothing good can come from the White House and Capitol Hill. Trump’s signature on the act in December marked one of those rare occasions when he sided with Congress over his own senior Justice Department staffers in determining that there’s a place for compassion in the crime-and-punishment formula. Trump’s previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions, strongly opposed this bill. Sessions’ successor, William Barr, has been much more receptive.
“After someone has been in prison for a substantial period of time, and you can really assess whether they continue to pose a threat to the community, then obviously you’re more inclined to modify the sentence or strike the balance in favor of some kind of monitoring that doesn’t involve the heavy cost and the isolation of this kind of prison system,” Barr told The New York Times.
Not all of the released inmates will necessarily walk free. About a third will move to state prisons to finish serving sentences imposed separately from their federal convictions. Some are subject to removal for being in the country illegally.
Federal judges may now bypass existing minimum-sentencing requirements and no longer have to abide by the “three strikes” rule imposing life sentences when a previously incarcerated felon commits a third crime. Nonviolent drug offenders no longer face overly harsh minimum-sentencing rules.
The new focus is on reducing recidivism. Prison terms are cut in proportion to each day a prisoner participates in an anti-recidivism program, including drug treatment and vocational training. In an April statement, Trump mentioned Missouri among six states following the federal lead with statewide criminal justice reform legislation.
This bill goes a long way toward relaxing many of the harsh sentencing guidelines imposed during the 1990s, when rampant drug trafficking and violent crime prompted a public outcry for get-tough policies. Prison populations exploded and forced huge expenditures on new facilities to house them all. Punishment was the goal, not necessarily rehabilitation.
Employers, including Walmart, have agreed to take a chance on hiring these newly released inmates. It’ll take years of monitoring recidivism rates to determine whether the First Step Act is working. But this marks one positive area where Republicans and Democrats agree on the need for a new approach amid overwhelming evidence that the previous effort wasn’t working.