A roadblock to criminal justice reform
U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley suggests the current environment for criminal justice reform is not the same as when the First Step Act passed.
In 2018, Congress passed, and then President Donald Trump signed, the First Step Act, a major piece of criminal justice reform with wide bipartisan support.
Here's a recap of the primary things this new law does:
It reduces the mandatory minimum for prior drug offenses. Current federal law could face 25 years for offenders with three prior drug convictions. The “three strikes” law offenders in that position would face a life sentence.
It shortens the mandatory minimums for certain crimes. For instance, serious drug felonies that used to carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years has been reduced to 15. The shortened sentences are not retroactive.
It gives federal judges more latitude for sentencing for first-time non-violent drug offenders and non-violent offenders with limited criminal histories.
2600 federal prisoners convicted of crack cocaine offenses before 2010 could retroactively benefit from the Fair Sentencing Act which reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and the powdered form of the drug. This sentencing disparity has been a glaring example of racial imbalance since crack cocaine was prevalent in black neighborhoods in the 1980s, those convicted were receiving longer sentences than white power cocaine users which is nonsensical.
The First Step Act includes reforms that require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to follow existing rules and policies such as placing prisoners in facilities within 500 driving miles of their families or homes, requiring the Bureau of Prisons to match people with appropriate rehabilitative services, education and training opportunities, and prohibiting the shackling of pregnant prisoners.
The bill also incentivizes prisoners to participate in rehabilitative programs with the goal of reducing recidivism. The bill offers prisoners to earn 10 days in half-way houses or in-home supervision for every 30 days they spend in a program. The program can be provided by a non-profit, faith-based organization, higher education institutions, and other private entities. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) offered an amendment that passed by voice vote that explicitly excludes violent felons from taking advantage of this.
Credit for good behavior: Prisoners could get seven days of credit for good behavior each year of his or her sentence with this bill. Those credits would be deducted from his or her sentence to allow for early release. Again, violent felons are excluded from this opportunity.
It expands eligibility for compassionate release of elderly and terminally ill inmates.
U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced the bill in the U.S. Senate, and it passed 87 to 12.
As the bill title suggested, it was a first step. As someone who has worked with juvenile and adult offenders, that bill was long-overdue, but more work is needed.
Late last month, Grassley, with U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., reintroduced three criminal justice reform bills, including the First Step Implementation Act.
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