The First Step Act: A True First Step in Criminal Justice Reform

By TJ Robers | United States

Last night, the United States Senate overwhelmingly voted to pass the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that President Trump has pledged to sign. The bill makes massive strides in improving America’s justice system, but we must not get carried away. While every reform in this bill ultimately makes America’s justice system better, the First Step Act must not be the end. It must be the beginning because criminal justice in America still has a plethora of flaws that we must address if we are to be truly free.

What the First Step Act Does

“Criminal Justice Reform” is a god-term, meaning it invokes an immediate, positive, and powerful response from a listener. Fortunately, the First Step Act does not fall into the trap that laws like the PATRIOT Act fell into, in which a law destroys freedom despite the connotation that the name has. This bill actually takes steps in the right direction.

The First Step Act Reduces Crack Sentences

Crack and Cocaine are ultimately the same things. Despite this, crack carries a much more severe sentence. This has had a devastating effect on minority communities since the 1980s. The First Step Act takes measures to make crack and cocaine equal in terms of sentencing by lowering the sentences one would receive for possession of crack.

The First Step Act Reduces Mandatory Minimums

Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill included a three strikes rule in which someone convicted of their third felony will receive an automatic life sentence. The First Step Act converts this to a 25-year sentence. In addition, federal judges will have a “safety valve” that will allow them to subvert mandatory minimums. This will help 2000 people avoid mandatory minimums.

The First Step Act is Not Enough

It is a good thing that crack sentences are being reduced and that nonviolent offenders are avoiding mandatory minimums. What is a bad thing, however, is that any nonviolent individual is behind bars. Right now, America makes up 5% of the world’s population but holds 25% of the world’s prison population. Many of these inmates are nonviolent offenders who did nothing more but sell or smoke a plant the government does not like.

This is not to be critical of the First Step Act; it is a step in the right direction. But that is all it is. Let us not pretend that the justice system has been fixed in the United States because it hasn’t been. We ought to be thankful that this legislation is making progress. We must, however, ensure that a chilling effect does not set in, because the people who have been victimized by America’s criminal justice system need far more than this bill offers.

You own yourself. You should not be in prison for using a drug. The only person you are harming by doing so is yourself. That should be your choice, and I do not have the right to forcefully stop you from making that choice.

Perhaps a more sweeping fix would be to declare the drug war as what it is: a trillion dollar failure that has devastated the lives of millions, especially in our poor and minority communities. Every individual who is incarcerated but never created a victim should be free. Mandatory minimums should be eliminated. Crime is an individual phenomenon. Sentencing should be treated as such.

In other words, The First Step Act is a first step that will help a lot of people, but it is not enough. To truly have a free society, we must push for freedom for all people; this means fighting the prison industrial complex.


This article was originally published in LIFE.

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