Landmark criminal justice reform

The U.S. Senate took a major step toward prison and sentencing reform Tuesday night with the passage of the First Step Act.

The welcome and much-needed changes represent the most sweeping revamp of the federal criminal justice system in decades.

The measure garnered strong bipartisan support as both Republicans and Democrats understood the need for an overhaul of the federal criminal justice system. The bill now heads to the House, where it also has the backing of both parties. President Donald Trump, a strong proponent of the bill, is expected to sign it if it reaches his desk.

“Today the Senate took a great step forward in building safer communities and a brighter future for those who have served their time and are re-entering society,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., stated. “By cutting recidivism, encouraging job training, education and mental health and substance abuse treatments for incarcerated individuals, and making our criminal justice system both smarter and tougher, we have taken a positive step tonight.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the act would reduce the population of 184,000 federal prisoners by 53,000 over the next decade through a combination of early release credits and a reduction of mandatory sentence lengths. The reduction in prison population would more than pay for the new prison training programs the bill authorizes.

The bill faced some big hurdles in the form of amendments proposed by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., that were designed to reduce the number of prisoners who could seek early release. Thankfully, senators managed to hash out their differences in a sometimes tense meeting Tuesday.

As reported out last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill is far more ambitious than the laudable First Step Act that the House approved earlier this year. That bill would permit inmates to earn credits for early release by completing training aimed at easing their reintegration into society, with the excellent aim of reducing the recidivism rate — the revolving door to prison that too many inmates sadly continue to cycle through.

The bill approved by the Senate would greatly increase the number of non-violent prisoners eligible for early release by retroactively reducing mandatory minimum sentences. But it also bars certain categories of offenders — ranging from some sex offenses to gang members to high-level drug traffickers to a number of violent acts — from taking advantage of early release credits. Those kinds of common sense compromises made the bill palatable to more senators.

Sen. Cotton had fought to further reduce categories of prisoners eligible for early release, but bipartisan coalitions backing the bill were rightly concerned that his amendments would defeat the purpose of the First Step Act. A number of Democratic senators who backed the Senate Judiciary version of the bill were ready to call Sen. Cotton’s bluff, threatening to vote against a bill that contained the strongest Cotton amendments.

The bill also allows judges to use more freedom in sentencing, among other changes.

Sen. Scott had pushed for requiring much more detailed reporting from police departments on all police shootings if they want to receive federal funding. He was spurred to action by the 2015 killing of Walter Scott by then-North Charleston police officer Michael Slager. His amendment did not make it into the final version of the bill.

CBO cost estimates of the various versions of the First Step Act make it clear that the public would not likely see dramatic changes in the size of the federal prison population or significant improvements in the repeat-offender statistics for a number of years. Even then, if the government does not also improve the post-release support it gives ex-prisoners, the reforms would fall short of their potential.

But the bill addresses several serious shortcomings of the criminal justice system. It is a notable first step toward meaningful reform.