The significance of the First Step Act, the criminal-justice-reform bill that senators passed Tuesday, should not be understated. It is the greatest reevaluation yet of the nation’s outmoded get-tough-on-crime policies that have contributed to its massive prison population, and an acknowledgment that in some cases rehabilitation and training are preferable to long-term human warehousing. We wish we could say this more often: Credit to Republicans, including President Trump, for finally shepherding a compromise reform package through the Senate. “My job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes,” Mr. Trump tweeted Tuesday, accurately for once.
The bill would help prisoners earn good-time credits so they could reduce their sentences for good behavior. It would offer them more training and work opportunities, as well as the chance to earn money that would go into escrow accounts to pay for post-release expenses. It would bolster programs to help prisoners reintegrate into society after release. It would ban shackling of pregnant women.
The legislation would relax some mandatory-minimum sentences, mainly on drug charges, and give judges more discretion to sentence people to less than the mandatory amount of time if they are convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. It would also address the ongoing outrage that more than 2,000 people have languished behind bars because of an unjust disparity in sentencing rules between charges for crack and powder cocaine offenses, a distinction that disproportionately hit African Americans.
In all, if the House approves the legislation, thousands of current inmates, and many more in the future, would get a fairer deal.
Plenty of caveats apply. The bill does not go as far as we would like, or satisfy activists seeking more sweeping reform. It does not relax federal sentencing enough. The methods it prescribes to assess the threats that prisoners pose upon release and to widen judges’ sentencing discretion should be scrutinized for fairness and effectiveness as they are phased in. Moreover, the states are responsible for the vast majority of prisoners in the country. No matter what the federal government does, reducing the prison population will demand careful work in statehouses to curb useless incarceration without surrendering the gains in public safety seen in recent years.
Still, this crime bill offers the country a direction — yes, a first step — that the House should approve and laggard states should follow. In both its specific changes and in its promise to spur reform below the federal level, it is clearly better than the status quo.