Criminal justice reform
“Did I hear that word ‘bipartisan?’ Did I hear that word?” President Donald Trump said at a news conference last month. “That’s a nice word.”
Yes, it is. The president was praising the work of Republicans and Democrats who came together to support a controversial and ambitious effort to restore sanity and fairness to our nation’s sentencing laws. Now that the bill appears to be on its way to passage in the U.S. Senate, we have to ask: Why doesn’t Congress do this more often?
The bill, which has been the subject of furious debate this week and of prodigious backroom labors in both the House and Senate for more than five years, also addresses desperately needed prison reforms that will change the way we treat inmates once they are incarcerated. It aims to help those who are released from prison to avoid returning to prison.
More than 80 senators voted Monday to prevent a filibuster by opponents and move to a vote. All day Tuesday, senators jousted back and forth over a handful of amendments intended to weaken or derail it.
The ultimate fate of those amendments and of the full bill wasn’t expected to be known until late Tuesday or Wednesday morning. But for a change, the momentum in Washington behind this bill has been flowing toward common sense and fairness. Even Trump and some of the more conservative lifers in the Senate, including judiciary committee chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, are on its side. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was a major advocate of the legislation. It also may have helped that the Fox Broadcasting Company threw its support behind the measure.
For its part, the House has already signaled its willingness to accept this improved bill once the Senate votes.
We write today to celebrate the rare example of bipartisan cooperation that has buoyed this bill. What a welcome antidote to the fierce partisanship displayed this fall during the confirmation fight over Justice Brett Kavanaugh. When this bill passes, its reforms will make the First Step Act the most important criminal justice reform in a generation. It’s the first comprehensive effort in years that squarely confronts America’s crippling crisis of mass incarceration.
Its passage will count as a major victory for Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who has been championing criminal justice reform for years, drawing deeply on his experience as both a former Texas attorney general and state Supreme Court justice. And while fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has opposed the bill for years, his announcement this month that he’d consider supporting it played a key role in bringing the bill to a vote. His willingness to consider the bill provided a ready rebuttal to the holdout conservative opponents like Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
Why is the bill needed so badly? Because America’s criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, just above El Salvador. We send too many people to jail and keep them there for too many years — often even if their offense was nonviolent and if experts have judged them at low risk of reoffending.
Such squandering of human capital is as savage as it is stupid.
“Our prisons ought to be more than warehouses for individuals,” Cornyn told his Senate colleagues, before pledging to vote for the bill.
The First Step Act redresses these inefficiencies and injustices. On the sentencing side, it will relax some of the most outrageous requirements for mandatory minimum sentences. It will retroactively address crack cocaine sentences that are wildly disproportionate to sentences handed down for powder cocaine.
On the prison reform side, it will provide training, employment counseling and drug-addiction recovery help for inmates if they want it, so they can be better prepared for life outside of prison. It will keep inmates closer to their families. And it will end the outrageous practice of shackling pregnant inmates.
The bill is far from perfect, as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Tuesday. “This legislation doesn’t go as far as I would like. Far from it. … But I believe it’s a historic bill. We owe it to them and to the communities where they will live to ensure they can lead productive lives. This compromise represents the best of the Senate.”
It’s an important lesson: We don’t have to settle for a Washington that is perpetually mired in partisan stalemate — another kind of prison. Congress members can do better. Congress members can shake off the shackles of partisanship and do what’s best for the country. This is one example. We should relish it. And demand it happen more often.