With nearly 2.3 million prisoners behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In context, that means more than in Communist China, Russia, or India.
The cry for criminal justice reform has been growing louder ever since the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences during the Clinton administration of the 90s. As expected, both Congress and the Senate have been slow to act.
It is therefore incredibly surprising, that despite all of the posturing and political vitriol being hurled across the aisles of Washington, the First Step Act was signed into law by the unlikeliest of presidents – Donald Trump.
Bipartisanism in an age of Tribalism
In the news media, hot button topics grab the most headlines. This ranges from health care and gun control to immigration and the economy. Yet under the surface, politicians are cooperating at an unprecedented rate, working together to compromise and pass legislation with support from all political strips.
The Numbers Don’t Add Up
Gathering accurate statistics about federal criminal justice metrics is easier to accomplish but there remains a glaring blind spot. Data about local criminal justice is often incredibly limited, inconsistent and not easily accessible to the public or policymakers.
So although at the federal level, the First Step Act will go along way to set new standards going forward, it does nothing retroactively and requires extensive time and consideration to adjust policies to be effective at state and local levels.
In the meantime, that means more lives being destroyed, more resources wasted, and more tax dollars being ineffectively thrown into a black hole of criminal justice opacity. Just when the light at the end of the tunnel will be reached for many inmates is still impossible to gauge. Furthermore, an entire swath of inmates has been entirely excluded from the reforms being cemented into law by the legislation.
High-risk groups, who would benefit the most from additional resources for productive programs are ineligible because of their status. Whereas low-risk inmates are afforded the utmost opportunity to reduce their time spent behind bars.
As expected, this bias also trends towards worsening the racial divide in the prison system, with more black Americans being labeled as dangerous, high-risk felons than white inmates.
A Road Paved With Good Intentions
One of the major focuses of the First Step Act is the shift in the application of mandatory minimum sentences. Historically, prosecutors were given discretion when choosing which charges to file and thus what sentencing recommendations would be available to a Judge. The Judge would then be required to follow the existing edict.
With the First Step Act, discretion goes back to the person wearing the robe and for the first time, a fair and impartial arbitrator can decide what level of sentencing is appropriate. This also serves to remove a coercive tool from a prosecutor’s toolbox. No longer can they threaten an accused individual with a mandatory minimum sentence as a way to extort a guilty plea, even if the accused is innocent.
The Next Step
Looking ahead, it is logical to conclude that a “Step Two Act” will be following on the heels of this groundbreaking legislation. What this hypothetical Act would look like and what problems it would address is up for debate.
In her book “Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration”, author Rachel Barkow suggests that the glaring problems still needing to be addressed include resources for “High-risk” prisoners, a path to freedom other than clemency for those existing prisoners who were unfairly prosecuted and quantification of the effectiveness of the Criminal Justice system at all levels so that measuring efficacy can be achieved with transparency.
This seems like a tall order to fill, especially since the industry of private prisons will always attempt to block any kind of scrutinization of their business practices. But politics and money be damned.
The solution to overcoming these obstacles is to show the narrative for what it is. That the Criminal Justice system is so broken and harmful that people from all levels of society are being persecuted. By broadening the issue to be about human rights, and not focusing as strongly on the bias against ethnic minority groups – which undeniably exists – there emerges a clear cause for every American to rally behind.
Highlighting clear points of congruency and cooperation will always supply a better outcome for changing this broken system. As the ultimate example of this, look at the bipartisan support exercised for the passage of the First Step Act.