A Good 'First Step' Toward Needed Prison Reform

Trump and several Republicans are pushing real reform for criminal justice.

Michael Swartz · Nov. 16, 2018

Three decades ago, crime in America was on the rise and the public was scared — and when John Q. Public is scared, often the first thing that’s said is, “There oughta be a law.” What followed was a “three strikes” law for habitual offenders and mandatory minimum sentencing for certain crimes. These changes helped lower crime levels appreciably, but there was a human toll to this hardline approach, too. People may shake their head in disbelief at a statistic we’ve pointed out, but because of drug-related convictions, our nation, which is home to just 4% of the world’s people, also hosts 25% of its imprisoned population. Not China, not Russia, but the Land of the Free, the U.S. of A.

It’s an issue where thoughtful conservatives have long favored necessary reforms, but one that our previous president addressed by, for example, using his pen and his phone to commute the prison terms of 46 drug offenders. Unfortunately, Barack Obama’s proposals muddied the waters by pulling in unrelated issues such as pre-K schooling and the restoration of voting rights for felons.

But thanks to a softening of public perception on crime, these reforms aren’t the “third rail” they once were. A simpler approach to prison reform, such as that advocated in a 2016 report by the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, focuses more on rehabilitation and incentives to reduce a prison sentence through cooperative and contrite actions. But it must be combined with sentencing reform, lest the effects of good behavior be thwarted because a federal judge is forced to restore a draconian sentence, such as the Matthew Charles case we documented earlier this year.

In a bitter irony, it was about the time Matthew Charles was re-sentenced that the House passed the First Step Act by a bipartisan 360-59 vote. But as Reason’s C.J. Ciaramella wrote at the time, the bill was only half a loaf: “Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Republican point man on criminal justice reform, [said] the bill is dead in the water unless it includes major reforms to federal sentencing law as well.”

Fortunately, the Senate had a complementary sentencing reform bill already in the process, and over the interceding few months a deal was reached that includes these sentencing reforms in First Step. This revised proposal is a bill that President Donald Trump has already vowed to sign, and in the waning days of the 114th Congress he’s called on First Step to become a priority item. “So far, seven major police organizations, more than 2,700 faith and evangelical leaders, and hundreds of conservative organizations and leaders support this legislation,” said the White House in a press release.

Not that he’ll get any credit for something that would help blacks. The Left, after all, has to maintain the narrative that he’s “racist.”

But even with the support of the president and conservatives like Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee — the former assistant U.S. attorney recently pointed out abuses in the current system as his reason for favoring the First Step proposal — the bill has some tough sledding ahead. “We don’t have a whole lot of time left,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “We need an actual proposal, then we would take a whip count, see where we stand, and then weigh it at that point against the other things that absolutely have to be accomplished.”

Despite the addition of sentencing reform to the original bill, it will be hard to convince politicians who prefer to keep the present system as a political cudgel while stoking the fires of race and class envy.

“Let’s just start with the hard truth about our criminal justice system,” complained probable 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren back in August. “It’s racist. It is. And when I say our system, I mean all the way. I mean front to back.” (In her case, criminal justice reform takes a back seat to “LGBTQ equality.”) Fellow far-left progressive senators (and potential 2020 candidates) Kamala Harris and Cory Booker also came out against reform, co-signing a letter from Sen. Dick Durbin back in October calling First Step “a step backwards,” and warning that “the recidivism reduction plan that is the core of the bill could actually worsen the situation in our federal prisons by creating discriminatory non-evidence-based policies.” However, Booker has since read the tea leaves and yesterday announced his support of the compromise bill.

With this Congress closing out its two-year run, and with Democrats poised to take control, this may be the last best opportunity for some sorely needed reform.

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