Center for American Progress

STATEMENT: CAP’s Ed Chung on Passage of the FIRST STEP Act in the House
Press Statement

STATEMENT: CAP’s Ed Chung on Passage of the FIRST STEP Act in the House

Washington, DC —Today, the House passed the FIRST STEP Act (H.R. 5682), sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). The bill aims to increase access to anti-recidivism programming and improve other prison conditions in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). While the bill contains positive provisions, such as the prohibition against shackling pregnant women in custody and granting compassionate release to ailing incarcerated individuals, it also raises serious concerns that must be remedied before final passage. Ed Chung, vice president for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress, issued the following statement in response:

The passage of the FIRST STEP Act in the House creates an opportunity for the Senate to build on some of the positive provisions in the legislation while also addressing its critical deficiencies. The bill unwisely continues to rely on Attorney General Jeff Sessions—who vehemently opposes criminal justice reform and this bill in particular—to create and implement a risk and needs assessment system for incarcerated individuals. This central feature of the bill determines the type of programming and time credits for which incarcerated individuals will be eligible. Putting faith in Attorney General Sessions to implement the bill without a strong oversight mechanism in place to ensure fidelity and fairness in the process is imprudent, especially considering that unvalidated risk assessments can lead to racial disparities.

Furthermore, the recent abrupt resignation of the Director of the BOP, Mark Inch, shows that prison reform should not move forward with haste. Already, the BOP was suffering from staff shortages and budget reductions. The sudden departure of Mr. Inch, who was in charge of the agency that the FIRST STEP ACT intends to reform, does not inspire confidence that the Justice Department will be able to effectively implement the bill’s provisions. Before final passage of this bill, the Senate must ensure that an experienced, reform-minded BOP director is appointed to carry out the bill’s intended goals.

The positive provisions of this bill do not go unnoticed, particularly a significant amendment that was added by the House Judiciary Committee that would fix the way the BOP calculates the amount of “good time” a person has earned while incarcerated. By making this fix retroactive, more people will be able to take advantage of these credits and go home earlier. However, going forward, the bill must be considerably improved in order for the legislation to achieve meaningful reforms. Sentencing reform is at the top of the list. Harsh, disproportionate sentences led to our mass incarceration crisis, and true criminal justice reform will only be possible after first addressing sentencing. We look forward to working with the Senate to improve the FIRST STEP Act.

Related resources:
Why Prison Reform Is Not Enough to Fix the U.S. Criminal Justice System” by Ed Chung
Criminal justice reform starts before the trial and sentence,” by Ed Chung and Jason Pye

For more information on this topic or to speak with an expert, please contact Sally Tucker at [email protected] or 202.481.8103.