Justice Action Network’s latest poll shows that three in four people are against mandatory minimum sentencing. And thanks to the work of celebrities like Kim Kardashian, political advocacy groups such as FreedomWorks, and politicians such as Senator Rand Paul, President Donald Trump is listening.
In a public display of support for the FIRST STEP Act, a bill that would implement the most sweeping reform to the federal criminal justice system in decades, the president of the United States — to the astonishment of many of his supporters — put extra pressure on Congress to act, stating the whole nation would benefit “if former inmates are able to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens.”
If Congress follows his lead and passes the piece of legislation in the following months, this will be the first time lawmakers take on the draconian sentencing practices that activists have long associated with the immoral war on drugs.
Along with changing how the federal government treats drug offenders currently in prison and those who could face charges in the future, the measure could also help prisoners who behave well, as officials may release them earlier.
Most importantly, the bill could help give judges back some discretion when it comes to sentencing, as many drug-crime offenders would become eligible for exemptions from the draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws that forced many nonviolent offenders to go to prison for life.
But critics claim the bill’s approach to the “good-time credit” for prisoners is misguided, as sheriffs claim that early release is “dangerous.” Despite these claims, Senator Mike Lee of Utah stands firm, telling critics that while the bill does expand the number of inmates who would be eligible for “good-time” credit, it would happen under the direction of the Bureau of Prisons, which would be the agency deciding which inmates have earned an early release.
It’s clear that offenders with a good record should be given their freedom sooner than later, considering one of the drug war’s most heartbreaking consequences is putting nonviolent first-time offenders behind bars for decades because of “crimes” involving voluntary exchanges between the salesperson and the consumer.
The fact of the matter is that the FIRST STEP Act may not be the most comprehensive set of reforms, as it doesn’t lead to the end of the drug war. But as the title spells out, it is the first step toward a fairer system.
Criminal Justice Reform Is What America Needs
The U.S. total incarcerated population is 1.5 million, while 183,000 of these inmates are housed by the federal prison system. As states noticed that the high rates of incarceration were eating at their resources, they began looking at criminal justice reform for a solution — long before FIRST STEP.
Over the years, lawmakers in states like Utah, Georgia, Illinois, and others passed their own bills focusing on prioritizing prison space for violent offenders. Now, they are all reaping the benefits, seeing both crime rates and the incarcerated population fall considerably.
What the president and even other unlikely individuals like his own son now appear to understand is that when nonviolent offenders enter the prison system and are treated like violent criminals, chances are they, too, will live up to the justice system’s expectations. Making sure offenders don’t return to prison once they are free means being fair about their sentencing, and finally admitting that the government has gone too far in its endless and fruitless war against drugs.
As the vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks Jason Pye once put it, now is the time to “be smart on crime.”
After all, Pye added, we will not reduce recidivism by “simply [warehousing] drug offenders for years and expect them to re-enter society successfully and as reformed citizens when they may lack an education or skills for a trade.” The only way to unwind the drug war, even if slowly, is to start by helping offenders feel they have a shot at living a productive life again.