This week, Congress affirmed that bipartisan support for criminal justice reform is both deep and wide. After many believed it would not happen, the Senate passed the First Step Act, legislation aimed at sentencing reform and expanding job training and other educational programs in federal prisons. A version of the bill was passed by the House earlier and it is now expected to become law.
Over the last two decades, a growing consensus among progressives and conservatives has emerged that over-reliance on incarceration is misguided. Too many people in America are in jail or prison and reform is necessary. Bi-partisan support for elimination of extreme sentences and reducing the prison population has produced significant reforms in some states. Reinforcement of this trend by the United States Congress is viewed by many as an important signal to more states to join the effort.
Right on Crime, a conservative group, has been advocating for the reduction of harsh penalties for years. Similarly, progressive leaders and organizations, including many formerly incarcerated people, have also been advocating reforms that reduce the number of people in prison while making communities safer. Even states such as Louisiana, which once had the highest imprisonment rate in the nation, are taking action. The state passed a number of criminal justice reform laws in 2017 and is now seeing progress.
The First Step Act will modify sentences for some crimes, create early release opportunities for many federal prisoners currently incarcerated and eliminate a much criticized distinction between powder and crack cocaine that has contributed to huge racial disparities. The strong bipartisan vote suggests that other reforms may be possible in the coming years.