Last night, the Senate passed the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person (FIRST STEP) Act, a bill which could provide relief to thousands of federal inmates and an untold number of future defendants for federal drug crimes. The Senate was widely considered to be the biggest hurdle to the bill’s success, and so activists and other supporters are celebrating in a way seldom seen in Washington criminal justice circles. With the president’s vocal support of the bill, it is likely to pass the House and be signed into law.
Although most news stories about FIRST STEP feature the “unlikely allies” from across the political and ideological spectrum that supported this bill, such language downplays the many years of tireless effort organizations on the left and right have put into bipartisan reform. Previous efforts have come up short, in one instance painfully close to the finish line, so the relief and elation many advocates are expressing are well-earned. While Cato policy precludes its scholars from endorsing legislation, my most sincere congratulations to the many organizations and individuals who fought so hard to make yesterday’s passage happen.
All that said, the FIRST STEP Act is aptly named because it only serves a small segment of the nation’s incarcerated population and thus cannot be the endpoint in the ongoing struggle for criminal justice reform. The United States holds over two million people in jails and prisons, mostly at the state and local levels. To the eligible prisoners who will be affected by FIRST STEP, the law may be a godsend, but for the vast majority of inmates, nothing will change when the president signs the bill into law. Taking nothing away from the achievements of FIRST STEP’s proponents, so much more needs to be done at every level of our criminal and carceral system.
Law enforcement officers continue to harass and over-police neighborhoods, bringing more people into the correctional system than need to be there in the first place. Prosecutors overcharge and over-sentence offenders, particularly those that exercise their constitutional rights to jury trials. Judges are still hamstrung by mandatory minimum sentencing laws that remove discretion and mercy in favor of punishment that may do more damage than good to the community.
Again, congratulations to our friends on the left, the right, and those in between who worked so hard to pass FIRST STEP. Cato is already working with some of these organizations on the next steps to making our criminal system fairer and less punitive.