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Op-ed Placement

Time to pass the First Step Act

BY Adam Brandon
11/14/2018
Originally Published in The Hill by Adam Brandon on 11/14/18.

The Senate, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has a prime chance to change its reputation and pass a landmark piece of conservative legislation. It arises on the issue of criminal justice reform that has strong bipartisanship across all ideological spectrums. Although most of the bipartisanship we see in the Senate coalesces around bad policy, such as wasteful spending, mass surveillance, and more, the bipartisanship in this instance is directed at very good policy.

Although the First Step Act has been stalled in the Senate for more than five months since passing the House earlier this year by a vote of 360 to 59, the bill is very much alive, as the lame duck session of the 115th Congress gets underway. News broke this week that a final deal that incorporates the input of key Senate and House players, outside stakeholders, and the White House has been put on the table.

The First Step Act that passed the House focused on only prison reform, a priority outlined by President Trump in his State of the Union Address this year and that has continued to press on since. The majority of the 57 Democrats who voted against passage in the House did so because they did not think prison reform was enough. They want sentencing reforms as well.

Many in the Senate shared that perspective, so this dream has finally become a reality. The package proposed includes the bill passed by the House with a few important revisions as well as four sentencing provisions the Senate knows well. These are the 924(c) stacking reform, 841/851 sentencing enhancement modifications, expansion of the 3553(f) federal safety valve, and retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act.

Leading on the issue in the White House is Jared Kushner and his team at the Office of American Innovation. For their tireless work to deliver relief to thousands of Americans affected by the inefficient federal justice system and continue to keep our communities safe, they deserve endless credit. McConnell now has a bill to do a vote check on, which he has promised to do, that has the backing of Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and everywhere around and in between, and that has wide support from faith based leaders and law enforcement alike. This new bill is dubbed the First Step Act.

For lawmakers, passing the First Step Act in the lame duck session this year is the smartest move imaginable. In a time when the American people feel that bipartisanship is a thing of the past and all that occurs in Washington anymore is gridlock and partisan vitriol, nothing could be better for all members of Congress than to prove that they can reack across the aisle in good faith for the betterment of the country.

The merits of the First Step Act compromise package in the Senate stand on their own legs. Carefully crafted prison reforms that provide modest but meaningful incentives to prisoners to participate in evidence based programming individually designed to reduce their risk of reoffense upon release from prison is all but entirely noncontroversial. In the House, only two Republicans voted against the measure.

On the sentencing side of the equation, the proposed reforms in the First Step Act apply the law as it was intended, refocus lengthy sentences on serious offenders, allow judges to exercise some discretion in sentencing offenders with limited and lower level criminal history, and offer relief to thousands of inmates at no cost to public safety. Although the lowest hanging fruit of sentencing changes included in bills that have been discussed for years, including the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, these reforms tackle some of the most egregious and obvious wrongs of our sentencing laws.

Senators should look to their backyards at home for proof that these reforms work. States, both traditionally conservative and traditionally liberal alike, have implemented criminal justice reforms over the past decade that serve as the model for the reforms in the First Step Act. An impressive 35 states have successfully cut crime and imprisonment simultaneously, and 22 of those states did so by double digits for both.

Clearly, this is a winning issue for conservatives, liberals, and Americans across the country. The Senate has a historic chance to break from its usual pattern on legislation and do its part in passing meaningful reform of our criminal justice system. With a House willing to support such significant reforms and a president who understands what this means not only to those in direct contact with the criminal justice system but also to average Americans, the time is now to pass the First Step Act.

Adam Brandon is the president of FreedomWorks.

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