Back in February, the House of Representatives by a 360-59 margin passed H.R. 5628, the “First Step” Act – an acronym for the “Formerly Incarcerated Re-enter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act.” With bipartisan co-sponsors, Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), the bill had cleared the House Judiciary Committee by a 25-5 vote.
Six months later, however, the bill has not advanced in the Senate as the 115th Congress nears its end. Here’s where things seem to stand at this moment.
Unlike the criminal law reform bill that floundered in Congress during President Obama’s final year in office, which proposed to revise sentencing laws by downgrading penalties for many non-violent crimes, the more limited First Step Act deals mainly with reshaping federal prisons to equip them to better aid inmates prepare themselves to re-enter society.
The sentencing changes in the 2016 bill drew the most fire of opponents led by then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), now running the Department of Justice (DOJ). He blocked the broader bill by claiming sentencing changes could put thousands of dangerous drug criminals back on the streets.
So, you might think a less ambitious bill like the First Step Act would do better. But many of its opponents among Democrats (who cast all but two of the House votes against it) base much of their opposition on the fact that it doesn’t include the sentencing reforms they want. About a hundred civil rights and prison reform groups also oppose it for lacking sentencing law changes, while others are torn over losing modest, achievable gains because farther-reaching changes aren’t included. The bill’s called “first step” for a reason.
The First Step Act would direct DOJ to improve its system for assessing the risk and rehabilitation needs of all federal inmates on intake, and determine (and periodically review) what anti-recidivism programs would most help eventual re-entry into society. Funds would be authorized for five years to get the new system running.
Inmates who successfully participate in anti-recidivism programs could earn substantial “good time” credit for earlier release and other privileges, including transfer to prisons closer to their homes or even home confinement. The bill includes assorted other reforms on inmate conditions.
More complications: Senate Judiciary chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) backs sentencing changes, and isn’t rushing to advance the First Step Act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) gives higher priority to numerous other bills in the limited time left in this Congress.
In mid-July, a DOJ memo signaled the agency had newly discovered problems with the House-passed bill, saying it would “erode… long-established truth-in-sentencing principles,” pose “impossible” administrative burdens, and reduce sentences of “thousands of violent felons,” while endangering the public and law enforcers.
President Trump, who had earlier said he’d probably sign the House bill (his son-in-law Jared Kushner is a backer) then met with DOJ’s Sessions and emerged voicing distaste for letting drug dealers gain earlier release, and said he’d agree to delay Senate action until after the mid-term election.
There’s no telling what a lame-duck Congress might look like, much less the new Congress coming in January, but it seems clear that without a breakthrough agreement between the parties, or highly unusual significant off-year gains for the Senate “in” party, the First Step Act’s thin chances are fading by the minute.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.