The new version of the First Step Act, endorsed by President Trump last week, is that rarest of Washington happenings: a compromise bill that actually raises the bar rather than settling for the lowest common denominator. In July, AEI Domestic Policy Director Ryan Streeter and I wrote that rather than surrendering to conservatives and progressives who were blocking the House-passed version of First Step, “Congress and the president need to continue to work toward reforms that serve the twin goals of justice and rehabilitation.”
The revised legislation does just that. The bill maintains House-passed provisions that improve federal prison policy while providing “down-payments” on much needed sentencing reform. In addition to banning the horrific and destructive practice of shackling pregnant inmates during child birth, the bill would give judges greater discretion in the use of mandatory minimum sentences, extend retroactively a 2010 law that eliminated sentencing disparities for cocaine-related drug offenses, and curtail the use of “stacking” by federal prosecutors who add firearms charges even when a weapon was not discharged during a criminal act.
That anyone might find such reforms controversial is a measure of how far US policy has drifted from the concepts of both “justice” and “rehabilitation.” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argues there isn’t enough time to complete action on First Step before adjournment. But for things that are truly important — like making our laws more just, humane, and reasonable — there must always be time. The way is there if our legislators can only muster the will.
Brent Orrell is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.