Center for American Progress

STATEMENT: House Judiciary Passes the FIRST STEP Act, When a Giant Leap Is Needed
Press Release

STATEMENT: House Judiciary Passes the FIRST STEP Act, When a Giant Leap Is Needed

Washington, D.C. – Today, the House Judiciary Committee reported out of committee the FIRST STEP Act, H.R. 5682, introduced by Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). The bill aims to improve access to educational, vocational, and other Bureau of Federal Prisons (BOP) programs in an attempt to reduce an individual’s likelihood of reoffending after being released from prison. While the bill includes beneficial provisions, the legislation must be markedly improved in order for it to meaningfully reduce recidivism and positively affect people returning to their communities. Ed Chung, vice president for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress, issued the following statement in response:

The trust that this bill places in Attorney General Jeff Sessions is unwarranted and dangerous. The core of this bill depends on Attorney General Sessions to create a tool to assess the risk of incarcerated individuals. An attorney general who believes without evidence that virtually all drug and immigration crimes are associated with violence will likely create a risk assessment that baselessly classifies more people at an artificially higher risk level and prevents them from receiving credit from recidivism reduction programs. There is also no requirement that this untested risk assessment must be validated in any way, much less in an independent and transparent manner, to ensure that it is effective and does not result in racial disparities before being implemented. Congress should not punt the responsibility of reforming the BOP to an attorney general who is uniquely unqualified for the task.

Certainly, the bill includes important provisions, such as preventing the shackling of incarcerated women who are pregnant; requiring placement in facilities that are closer to a person’s family; mandating de-escalation training for corrections officers, and a significant amendment offered by Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Cedric Richmond (D-LA), Doug Collins, and Val Demings (D-FL) that would fix a lingering problem in the way the BOP calculates the amount of “good time” a person has earned while incarcerated. The amendment ensures that the bill’s provision applies retroactively, which would allow more people to take advantage of these credits and go home earlier. However, going forward, the bill must be significantly improved in order for the legislation to achieve meaningful reforms.

Sentencing reform is at the top of the list. Harsh, disproportionate federal sentences are largely responsible for our bloated federal prison population, and true criminal justice reform will only be possible after first addressing sentencing. This bill could have been strengthened considerably by adjusting the Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate crack-cocaine sentencing disparities altogether and applying this provision retroactively, portions for which even Attorney General Sessions has voiced support. It also should have included pieces of the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders and allow for greater judicial discretion. In short, this bill needs considerable substantive changes to achieve true criminal justice reform.

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