Impressively defying what has become a disturbing habit of partisan gridlock, the U.S. Congress has enacted landmark criminal-justice reform that will change lives for the better.
The First Step Act includes important changes to prison and sentencing laws that will make the nation’s criminal-justice system more fair and less costly.
Every Democrat in the Senate and all but 12 Republicans voted in favor of the legislation, a rare moment of bipartisan accomplishment. A wide variety of conservative and liberal groups back the proposal. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on Dec. 21.
The overhaul didn’t reach all the goals set by former President Obama or by prison-reform advocates on both sides of the aisle. But it includes substantial and meaningful reforms: more racially equitable drug sentencing laws, expansion of early-release programs, ending solitary confinement for juveniles in nearly all cases, shortening the mandatory minimum “three strikes” penalty from life in prison to 25 years, and reducing the mandatory minimum sentence for felony drug offenses from 20 years to 15.
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One of the most important changes would retroactively fix racially disproportionate cocaine sentencing. Prisoners sentenced before a 2010 reduction in the sentencing disparity between those arrested for crack and powder cocaine violations will be able to petition the court to have their cases re-evaluated.
African Americans have generally received more serve punishment for crack dealing than white drug dealers received for similar crimes involving powder cocaine. About 2,600 prisoners serving lengthy sentences for crack-cocaine offenses could benefit from this change in the law.
The First Step Act will improve prison conditions and help prepare low-risk offenders for returning to their communities with employment and training opportunities.
The expansion of early-release programs and other support programs may impact even more people. Prisoners will be encouraged to participate in programs designed to reduce recidivism, with the incentives including earlier release to halfway houses or home confinement. Prisoners convicted of serious offenses will not be able to participate in this program.
Overall, the First Step Act is an excellent example of bipartisan compromise.