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Congress Passes Bill To Tackle Criminal Justice

The First Step Act adopts significant criminal justice reforms.

Congress has passed the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill aimed at addressing drug sentencing, prison and related policies that have disproportionately impacted African-American communities for decades. The U.S. House of Representatives passed S. 756 on Thursday by a vote of 358-36. The legislation has broad bipartisan support and has been championed by president Donald Trump and White House advisor, Jared Kushner.

Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Doug Collins (R-GA) were the original authors of the legislation. It seeks to propel formerly-incarcerated individuals toward success when they return home, while enacting targeted reforms that would improve public safety and reduce recidivism.

Back in April, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called on congressional leadership of both parties to dedicate more resources to criminal justice reform.

African American lawmakers who co-sponsored the measure include Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Karen Bass (D-CA), Keith Ellison (MN), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), and William `Lacy’ Clay (D-MO). The nation’s three African American Senators– Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC)—all backed the legislation.

The First Step Act has a few key provisions. Once signed into federal law, it would:

  • Pull back harsh mandatory minimum sentences. Examples include letting judges give lower sentences in some circumstances and easing a “three strikes” law to give 25 years instead of life in prison.
  • Make 2010 crack cocaine sentencing reforms retroactive, so that older crack sentences also will be eased to bring them more in line with powder cocaine penalties;
  • Expand “good time credits” which inmates with good behavior can use to get out of prison earlier;
  • Create “earned time credits” that encourage inmates to take part in rehabilitative programs for an earlier release. By some estimates, more than 600,000 individuals are released from prison annually.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a lawyer, is the top member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Terrorism; via her spokesperson, Jackson Lee said she’s worked “tirelessly” to ensure that the final version of the bill included meaningful sentencing reform.

To that end, the Jackson Lee Amendment in the bill would bring expert oversight to the federal process with a goal of minimizing racial disparities, strengthening recidivism reduction programs and more.

“This is important because our criminal justice system is about justice, which equates to fairness, righteousness and reasonableness,” she said. “All of which require that we provide mechanisms of rehabilitation for those who have paid their debts to society for their bad acts, and who will, more importantly, return to our society at some point.”

Rep. Kamala Harris, the former Attorney General of California, noted that “for too long, sentencing in our country has been overly severe and has disproportionately targeted communities of color – especially Black men.”

In a statement, Harris said reforming some of the most “draconian federal sentencing laws,” including mandatory minimum sentences under two and three strikes’ laws, will make the system more just; and retroactively applying the reduced sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine will make the system fairer. The Senator added that allowing judges greater discretion to reduce unfair sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders and eliminate unjust sentencing enhancements will make the system smarter. “These reforms are long overdue and I’m proud to support them.”

While critics of the bill say it does not do enough, supporters say it offers a way for offenders serving time to re-enter society. It provides individuals in prison with greater access to education, substance abuse treatment, and job training. It also eliminates the shackling of pregnant prisoners, requires healthcare products for incarcerated women, and ends federal juvenile solitary confinement.

Rep. Karen Bass, who gave a passionate speech on the House floor about the bill, worked to include language in the legislation that pays special attention to the treatment of pregnant women in prison, according to her spokesperson. It specifically addresses the practice of shackling expectant women, including during labor and delivery.

“Between 1980 and 2014, there was a 700 percent increase in the number of women in custody. This was nearly twice the rate of male imprisonment. Woman are often held for nonviolent, low-level drug offenses,” Bass said during her speech. “Unfortunately they are entering a male-centered penal system not defined to meet their physical or mental health needs. What is needed is criminal justice reform that understands that women in the system have unique needs.”

Bass added, “This is the first step toward addressing the needs of women.…I look forward to continuing to work on criminal justice reform in the upcoming Congress.”

The First Step Act is backed by a number of law enforcement groups, more than 100 former federal prosecutors, and the National Governor’s Association, which represents the governors of all 50 states. A broad coalition of progressive and conservative groups and a host of business leaders and faith-based organizations also support the measure.

In addition to Jeffries who authored the bill, other African American men in Congress who pushed for its passage, released statements praising its passage.

Calling the legislation “historic,” Jeffries predicted it will “meaningfully reform our broken criminal justice system, enact fairer sentencing laws, reduce recidivism and save taxpayer dollars.”

“It is a significant step toward redemption for thousands of non-violent drug offenders harshly treated by unjust crack-cocaine laws. [The bill] represents the beginning of the end of over-criminalization in America,” Jeffries said.

Rep. Cory Booker echoed that sentiment. “Our broken criminal justice system is a cancer on the soul of our nation that’s disproportionately preyed upon low-income Americans, the addicted, and people of color,” he said. “This bill is a meaningful step in the right direction that will help correct the ills of the failed `War on Drugs.’ It will have a profound effect on thousands of families suffering under the burden of our broken system.”

Rep. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, was an original co-sponsor of the First Step Act.

“This has been a team effort that has spanned the political spectrum; and for that, we should all celebrate,” he said. “Meaningful criminal justice reform is just one step in ensuring that the scales of justice are balanced for every American —a core principle of our nation. I look forward to ushering the First Step Act through the finish line and to the President’s desk.”

Trump, who tweeted his approval about the bill passing Congress, is expected to sign the bill. At ESSENCE press-time, a date had not yet been set.

This story originally appeared in Essence.

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