WASHINGTON -- When it comes to prison reform, a little something is better than a lot of nothing. That is why the bipartisan First Step Act, passed last week by the House, deserves to be approved by the Senate and signed into law.
Progressives are sharply divided on the measure, mostly because of what it doesn’t do. The bill -- sponsored by Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Doug Collins, R-Ga., and strongly pushed by President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner -- does nothing to address the main problem, which is that this nation sends far too many people to prison and keeps them locked up far too long.
Truly meaningful change would involve sentencing reform, for which there is some bipartisan support in Congress -- but not enough to get such legislation through both chambers. It is hard to imagine that Trump, who tries so hard to project a tougher-than-thou image, would sign a bill significantly reducing sentences. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who believes in throwing away the key, would have a conniption fit.
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The First Step Act ignores the “front end” of the problem -- sentencing -- and focuses exclusively on the “back end.” It would provide $50 million a year for five years in new funding for education and rehabilitation programs in federal prisons, encourage inmates to participate in those programs by giving them credits for early release, and allow some prisoners to serve the balance of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement.
Proponents estimate the bill would allow up to 4,000 inmates to be released from prison immediately. This is a small fraction of the total federal prison population of nearly 184,000. But try to explain that disparity to those 4,000 men and women and their families.
The bill also requires that inmates be housed at prisons within 500 miles of their homes, that inmates not be shackled during childbirth and recovery and that sanitary products be provided to female prisoners. It is appalling that such basic humanity has to be compelled by legislation, but here we are.
The House vote on the First Step Act was 360-59, with Democrats sharply divided. Some of the most progressive members of the Democratic caucus supported the bill and some voted against it. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund lobbied against the bill; the National Urban League urged approval.
There is reason to question whether the bill’s benefits will be as great as supporters claim, and of course there is reason to prefer more comprehensive legislation that also deals with sentencing. But I see no justification, in this case, for opposing incremental progress -- especially since real progress is nowhere in sight.
Based on the experience of the last 16 months, I start from the general premise that anything proposed by the Trump administration probably should be fought tooth and nail. Then I look more closely to see if this usually sound assumption holds up. In this case, however, it doesn’t.
It is true that we will never begin to reform our shameful system of mass incarceration and warehousing until we address sentences. We send to prison far too many men and women whose nonviolent or minor crimes should be handled without incarceration. African-American and Hispanic men are unfairly targeted by sentencing rules and biased police practices. While in prison, inmates get essentially no preparation for rebuilding their lives upon release. Far too often, they revert to crime -- and wind up back in prison.
Opponents of the First Step Act argue that passing this limited measure would relieve pressure on Congress and the administration to address the issues at the heart of the prison problem. My question is: What pressure?
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wants to push sentencing reform legislation through the Senate, and I hope he succeeds. But how is anyone going to get such a bill through the House, with its much more conservative GOP majority? How is anyone going to get Sessions on board? Or convince Trump to sign it?
If Democrats take control of the House in November, they will be able to revisit the issue anytime they want -- but they will have real clout to go along with their passion. Nothing in the current bill precludes bolder, more comprehensive action when the votes, and the president’s pen, are lined up and ready.
If the First Step Act were a close call -- and I don’t think it is -- the balance would be tipped by the prisoners eligible for immediate release. They want to hug their children, and they have earned the chance.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.