Jan 18, 2019

FIRST STEP Act Momentum Should Feed into Multiple Next Steps

Post by Freedom Partners

Make no mistake: The FIRST STEP Act is a landmark piece of legislation.

Signed into law last month, it addressed some of the worst aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system — a system that had not seen reform in many years.

The legislation respects human dignity, gives judges the ability to issue more proportional sentences for nonviolent offenders and expands access to rehabilitation programs in federal prisons. It also shows that bipartisanship in Washington is still possible — the Senate passed the FIRST STEP Act by a vote of 87-12 and the House passed the bill 358-36.

But the years of work that went into passing the FIRST STEP Act would be all but meaningless if the momentum were to stop here.

“As important as this bill is, considerable work remains to improve our criminal justice system,” wrote Freedom Partners Chairman Mark Holden in a recent op-ed for Morning Consult. “After all, the legislation just signed into law is aptly titled: the first step.”

What might the next steps be?

In an op-ed for The Atlantic, Holden and two co-authors offer clemency reform as one possibility.

Clemency authority resides within the executive branch. The clemency process varies from administration to administration. Sound standardization could give second chances to many, many more deserving people who wouldn’t necessarily qualify for relief under the First Step Act.

“For clemency to reach those thousands, the country needs a process that fairly, thoroughly, and efficiently evaluates candidates for a commutation (or shortening) of their sentence under the Constitution’s pardon power,” the op-ed reads. “At the moment, there are two possible processes, but neither works very well.”

Thus, the need for reform.

In addition to clemency, there are other areas of criminal justice reform in equal need of attention.

Many Possible Next Steps

Let’s not forget the FIRST STEP Act still needs to be fully implemented. It is the responsibility of the administration, with proper congressional oversight, to make sure the law is enacted faithfully.

Other areas that need to be addressed include (but are not at all limited to):

  • Reentry and reintegration. Those with a criminal record should be able to successfully rejoin our communities with the tools, treatment, and skills needed to succeed, which would lower their likelihood of reoffending. And government should remove regulatory barriers that make it all but impossible for these people to get jobs, housing, and education – all things they need to live better, safer lives.
  • Overcriminalization. It’s estimated that there are nearly 5,000 federal statutes and over 300,000 regulations with criminal penalties attached — but no one really knows. There are so many federal laws that we stopped counting years ago. This is a problem because it means that almost anyone can violate a federal law on any given day. Criminalization should be limited to violations of life, liberty and property — not poverty, addiction, mental health, or when someone violates an obscure law they didn’t even know existed.
  • Bail reform. In the U.S., the rich and guilty often get a fairer deal than the poor and innocent. Our bail system is a good example of this injustice. In many cases, risks assessments aren’t conducted, and unaffordable bond can effectively turn jail into a “debtor’s prison” for the poor. The decision to jail someone before their day in court should be based on whether that person is a threat to public safety – not on their financial status in life.
  • Civil asset forfeiture. Currently, the government can legally seize and keep your property without charging you of a crime. Many abuses of this practice occur at the state level, but people are also having their assets confiscated under the federal Bank Secrecy Act. This system lacks transparency and creates bad incentives for the hard-working police men and women who serve and protect. It’s time we stand up for the property rights of all Americans.

The criminal justice reform momentum should also feed into progress at the state-level. Some states have enacted due process reforms and “clean slate” laws, but many others need to act.

One Foot in Front of the Other

The FIRST STEP Act is a landmark law.

But the work is not complete.

By taking more and more steps, we can get closer to our ultimate destination: a criminal justice system that keeps communities safe, levies effective punishes that fit the crime, and creates more second chances for those who have earned one.