As December dwindled to its last days, something happened that should serve as inspiration for the coming year. President Donald Trump signed — after bipartisan support in Congress — the First Step Act. The landmark bill provides much-needed prison and sentencing reform.
This demonstrates one thing: both the president and Congress are capable of working together and doing the right thing when it suits them.
Trump signed the act Dec. 21 in the Oval Office of the White House joined by criminal justice reform advocates, faith leaders, ex-offenders and lawmakers who pushed hard to pass the bill before the close of Congress.
The act includes substantial and meaningful reforms: more racially equitable drug sentencing laws, expansion of early-release programs, ending solitary confinement for juveniles in nearly all cases, shortening the mandatory minimum “three strikes” penalty from life in prison to 25 years, and reducing the mandatory minimum sentence for felony drug offenses from 20 years to 15.
The law retroactively addresses racially disproportionate cocaine sentencing. African Americans have generally received tougher punishment for dealing crack than white drug dealers received for similar crimes involving powder cocaine. Federal prisoners sentenced prior to 2010 under harsher laws will be able to petition the court to have their cases re-evaluated.
The First Step Act will improve prison conditions and help prepare low-risk offenders for returning to their communities with employment and training opportunities. Prisoners will be encouraged to participate in programs designed to reduce recidivism, with the incentives including earlier release to halfway houses or home confinement. Prisoners convicted of serious offenses will not be able to participate in this program.
According to the White House, the bill “paves a new pathway for our federal justice system” and reforms decades of policies that “have failed Americans.” White House officials noted that approximately 77 percent of state inmates and 38 percent of federal inmates are rearrested within five years of their release.
“Criminal justice reform — everybody said it couldn’t be done,” Trump said at the signing ceremony. “They said that the conservatives won’t approve it and the liberals won’t approve it. They said nobody is going to approve it, everybody is going to be against it. It has been many years, numerous decades and nobody came close.”
But, it got done. Everyone looked at the issue, identified agreeable terms and passed the law. Surely, that process can be repeated.
Here’s to beginning 2019 with resolutions to end partisan gridlock. Happy New Year.
Shea Wilson is the former managing editor of the El Dorado News-Times. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com @sheawilson7.