For prisons, let First Step Act be just that

By The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board

The U.S. criminal justice system is in desperate need of an overhaul that builds off the understanding that crime is primarily a young man’s game and that harsh punishments destroy the lives of salvageable people. Claims that a tough approach reduces crime just aren’t true. According to the latest results on the Numbeo crime database, no industrialized First World nation has a higher crime rate than the United States, and many — including Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan — have somewhat lower to sharply lower rates. What do all of these nations have in common? They’re less likely than America to lock up criminals for decades at a time.

The pointlessness — and heavy cost — of mass incarceration is increasingly obvious to the nation’s governors and state lawmakers. The Pew Charitable Trust reported last year thatmore than 30 states, including California, have acted to reduce prison sentences and improve programs that make it more likely that convicts will go on to lead productive lives. Further undercutting the claim that harsh sentences improve public safety, these states have seen their crime rates continue to drop.Now, finally, there is a chance that significant federal reforms will emerge from Congress. The House this week voted 360-59 to approve the First Step Act. Introduced this month by Reps. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, and Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York, it would incentivize the 183,000 inmates in federal prison to sign up for more vocational and rehabilitation programs and would increase funding for such programs. It would also make it easier for inmates to get their sentences reduced for their good behavior and would require that prisoners be housed within 500 miles of their families. It’s been endorsed by President Donald Trump at the behest of his aide/son-in-law Jared Kushner and a group of Republican lawmakers.

But the measure faces significant opposition in the Senate. Democratic senators Kamala Harris of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Cory Booker of New Jersey — echoing the critique made by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — fault the bill for not taking up the even more important issue of sentencing reform. They are correct that this issue is crucial and must be addressed — and their concern that passage of the bill might be a one-off gesture toward systemic reform that gets no follow-up is also fair and relevant.

It is a welcome sign of the shifting tides in the criminal justice reform debate that the reform measure’s biggest critics are those who think it doesn’t go far enough instead of those in the lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key camp. Yet it is hard to fathom how blocking the first bipartisan prison reform measure to have a solid chance of being enacted is good for the cause. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a Republican-controlled House, Senate and White House might support legislation premised on the idea that federal prisoners face unduly harsh punishment and need government help to lead successful lives. A quarter-century ago, during the height of the U.S. tough-on-crime blitz, the same was true when Democrats controlled Congress and the Oval Office.

This context is crucial. It explains why Jeffries, an African-American lawyer, is so critical of the “all or nothing” approach of some of his fellow liberal Democrats. These progressives should embrace the First Step Act — then work with Republicans like Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa on sentencing reform to ensure the law is indeed just a first step toward more reforms. Something is better than nothing.