The biggest problem with the First Step Act, however, isn’t what’s in it; it’s what’s left out. Specifically, sentencing reform. Harsh sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s, like mandatory minimums of 10 or 20 years even for low-level drug crimes, have been among the main drivers of the nation’s exploding prison population.
If the states’ experience has demonstrated anything, it’s that effective justice reform can’t happen without addressing both ends of the problem at once — not simply helping the people now behind bars, but limiting how many get locked up in the first place.
Even once-skeptical lawmakers have come to appreciate this fact. Senator Charles Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wrote in an op-ed on Fox News that it was “naïve and unproductive” to focus only on so-called “back-end” reforms like good-time credits, and ignore the punitive sentencing laws that continue to fill the nation’s prisons. “There will never be enough funding for back-end prison reform programs as long as there is a steady stream of new inmates with lengthy sentences disproportionate to their crimes,” Mr. Grassley wrote.
Mr. Grassley is sponsoring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would reduce the harshest sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and give judges more discretion to issue lighter sentences. The bill nearly passed Congress in 2016, only to be killed by then-Senator Jeff Sessions.
Mr. Sessions has continued to badmouth sentencing reform as attorney general, leading Mr. Grassley to suggest that if he “wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama.”
Mr. Grassley’s bill has the support of top senators of both parties, as well as law-enforcement leaders and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil-rights organizations. It’s not perfect, but it’s far preferable to the First Step Act, which could get a vote in the House as soon as this week.
Meanwhile, liberal backers of the First Step Act, like Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the New York Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, argue that it’s better than nothing, especially in the current political environment. “We have a Republican president. Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate,” Mr. Jeffries wrote in letter to his colleagues on Friday. “Those are the facts.”