First Step Act proves Congress can still do something good

Published 7:39 pm Friday, December 21, 2018


The Advocate-Messenger

The U.S. executive and legislative branches aren’t particularly known for being efficient or effective in recent years. They’re better known for gridlock, partisanship, doublespeak and underhanded dealings.

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But this month, there has been a glimmer of beautiful bipartisanship, a moment of hope that our Congress can actually do something good.

The U.S. Senate and House have passed the First Step Act, which has been touted as the most significant criminal justice reform in the U.S. in decades. President Donald Trump supports the legislation signed the bill into law Friday.

The act will accomplish several very important changes in our courts and jails:

• It will reduce mandatory minimum sentences, which forced lengthy prison terms for those convicted of certain crimes, even when judges who understood the nuances of their particular cases knew better and wanted to give a shorter sentence.

• It will relax a so-called “three-strikes” law, which has required life sentences in the past for people convicted of ridiculously petty crimes, just because they had two prior convictions.

• It makes retroactive 2010 reforms that lessened the discrepancy between punishments for crack vs. powdered cocaine, further shrinking the impact of mid-20th-century racist sentencing guidelines designed to put and keep black people in jail.

• It makes other changes designed to make it easier for inmates to get rehabilitation for drug problems and earn their way out of prison sooner.

The name of the First Step Act is intentional — advocates for it such as our U.S. Sen. Rand Paul recognize that it is only a “first step.” Much more must be done to make our justice system truly just for everyone, regardless of their racial or socio-economic background.

Tackling a problem as huge and complex as fairness in our criminal justice system — especially when the biases and flaws in the system have been allowed to run amok for decades without correction — will require much more than what the First Step Act accomplishes. But the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

It’s nice to see Democrats and Republicans working together on something that matters for a change. It proves there are still areas of policy in our country where improvements can be made through cooperation.

The First Step Act sets a good example for the legislation that must necessarily follow in its footsteps in order to keep bending the moral arc of time toward justice.

The way it was passed also sets a good example for how legislators should operate in general — focused on areas of strength and agreement, rather than wasting their breath on issues they’ll always fight about.