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Opinion For criminal justice reform, the First Step Act is just the start

Matthew Charles, released from prison under the First Step Act, acknowledges applause after President Trump recognized him during the State of the Union address. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

There was little for progressives to cheer in last week’s State of the Union address, but President Trump received a rare bit of bipartisan applause when he touted the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill that Congress approved in December. Backed by a broad coalition ranging from the ACLU to the Koch network, the First Step Act includes provisions reducing some federal prison sentences and allowing incarcerated individuals to qualify for early release. The law does mark real progress, but as its name implies, it is only a step. Truly fixing America’s broken criminal system means addressing several major problems.

Mass incarceration remains one of the greatest civil rights issues of our time. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with more than 2.1 million people locked up in prisons and jails across the country, including a disproportionate number of black and brown Americans. Since the First Step Act only applies to those held in federal prisons, it didn’t help the nearly 90 percent of the incarcerated population in state and local facilities.

Many incarcerated Americans are forced to live in brutal, dehumanizing conditions. At the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, prisoners recently endured nearly a week of dangerously low temperatures without power or hot water. While the situation provoked national outrage, little public attention is paid to many more overcrowded and underfunded prisons where incarcerated people face physical violence, a lack of adequate health care and excessive isolation that can have lasting mental health effects. “Every day, people held in prisons and jails wake up to face systemic abuse and dehumanizing indifference,” write Cardozo Law School professors Betsy Ginsberg and Alexander Reinert. “No one should be fooled into thinking that what happened at the MDC is unique.”

And though nobody should be subjected to systemic abuse and neglect, it’s important to acknowledge that, like many incarcerated people across the country, most of the people jailed at the MDC have not even been convicted of a crime. On an average day, hundreds of thousands of Americans are sitting behind bars simply because they are too poor to afford bail. In some cases, innocent people have spent years incarcerated awaiting their day in court. This unfair system needlessly deprives people of their freedom, devastates families and deepens inequality. As The Post’s editorial board wrote last year, “People can lose their jobs, homes and families. The temptation is strong to admit guilt simply to escape the misery of rotting in a lockup while the rest of one’s life crumbles. Charged with identical crimes, the wealthy need not face that choice.”

True reform must also eliminate obstacles to reentering and participating fully in society. Supporting better educational and job training programs inside prisons can help incarcerated people become more productive citizens upon their release. Making it easier and less expensive for inmates to stay in contact with their families can help break the cycle of imprisonment and poverty. Restoring fundamental rights that many formerly incarcerated people are still denied can empower them to have a voice in our democracy. In Florida, for example, voters approved a constitutional amendment in November to restore voting rights to 1.4 million people who were previously disenfranchised. But it will take vigilance to stop GOP opponents of the amendment from putting up road blocks to its full implementation.

These are just a few of the many issues that remain, from providing more resources for public defenders to cracking down on the insidious use of private prisons that put profit above all else. (Indeed, Trump may want to be seen as a reformer, but the private prison industry donated heavily to his campaign and has prospered greatly from his presidency.) Much of this work has to occur at the state and local level — and many states are already pursuing important reforms — but there is significant work to do at the federal level as well. The exit of former attorney general Jeff Sessions, who was committed to an extremely regressive vision of our criminal justice system, has presented some new opportunities. Yet there are obvious reasons to question how much progress is feasible under Trump.

To that end, it’s encouraging that criminal justice reform is already emerging as a key issue in the Democratic presidential primary. Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) agenda includes legalizing marijuana, increasing funding for public defenders and providing financial incentives for states to reduce their prison populations. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has described the criminal justice system as “racist” and called for reform in her official campaign announcement speech Saturday. Last year, presumed candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced legislation that would abolish money bail at the federal level and encourage states to follow suit. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has called for bail reform, too, though she is also facing criticism over her record as a prosecutor that she will need to address as the campaign wears on.

The passage of the First Step Act was certainly significant. But that is less because of what it specifically accomplished than because of what it showed. Across the ideological spectrum, there is real momentum for more criminal justice reform, including bold ideas that Trump is unlikely to ever support. As they work to present a real alternative to Trumpism, progressives would be wise to seize on that momentum and help it grow. The first step was positive, but it shouldn’t be the last.

Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.

Read more:

Matthew Charles: I was released under the First Step Act. Here’s what Congress should do next.

DeAnna R. Hoskins: Is this really the best we can do for criminal-justice reform?

Megan McArdle: The biggest problem with the criminal justice reform bill

Michael Gerson: No more pits of despair. Offenders are still humans.

Jennifer Rubin: What the criminal-justice reform bill tells us about Congress