It’s a rare day when both Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell earn praise for pushing forward bipartisan legislation.
This was one such day. The First Step Act, a long-sought piece of criminal justice reform, cleared the Senate Tuesday night and now appears headed for final passage. Without the support of the president and Senate majority leader, it would be going nowhere.
But the hosannas come with some caveats. McConnell’s backing feels rather cynical, given that he blocked similar legislation during the Obama years in a bid to deprive a Democratic president of a signature accomplishment. And as the new bill’s name would imply, it’s just a first step. Much more is required if the United States is to reverse its punitive and counterproductive legacy on crime.
Most important, the bill’s reach is limited. It covers only the federal portion of the criminal justice system — and that’s a relatively small portion. Just 1 in 10 American inmates is housed in a federal prison or jail. If we’re to shed our disgraceful designation as the world’s leading jailer, even the most enlightened White House and Senate won’t be enough. We’ll need governors and state legislators to step up. And this is where the First Step legislation must have its biggest impact: not as game-changer, but as tone-setter.
Yes, the bill should have gone further. But its bipartisan rebuke to the tough-on-crime approach of the 1980s and 1990s can be an inspiration to local officials. And its best ideas should be replicated in state houses across the country. Even progressive states like Massachusetts, which passed an impressive package of criminal justice reforms earlier this year, could learn a thing or two. First Step, for instance, expands the “safety valve,” which allows federal judges to ignore mandatory minimum sentence requirements in certain cases.
Attorney General Maura Healey is among those who have called for “safety valve” legislation here, on the state level. Some criminal justice reform advocates see it as a half-measure, arguing that state lawmakers should be focused on eliminating mandatory minimum sentences altogether. But with little sign that mandatory minimums are going away, finding ways to reduce their impact is a worthy goal.
Other provisions of the federal bill, worthy of emulation around the country, would weaken the three-strikes penalties for drug-related offenses and allow eligible prisoners to shave more time off their sentences with good behavior credits.
Many states, including Massachusetts, have solid “good behavior” policies in place, but fail to fully fund the rehabilitation programs that prisoners must complete to earn their credits. Funding those programs would not only cut down on overlong sentences, but also better prepare inmates for life on the outside.
First Step also includes some simple, but important, humanitarian provisions — barring the shackling of women during childbirth, for instance, and requiring that prisoners are placed closer to their families. Again, state and local authorities should take note.
Though it will have limited direct impact, the criminal justice reform bill is still progress. Let’s hope that it sets the right example for individual states.