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Without a doubt, President Trump’s recent signing of the First Step Act, which passed the Senate 87-12 and the House 358-36, marks a historic moment for conservatism in Washington. In response to more than a decade of evidence from successful criminal justice reforms in several states, the federal government has elected to enact similar meaningful reforms. Most importantly, Republicans are redefining in their own image the traditional, and rightful, meaning of “tough on crime.”
President Trump ran his 2016 presidential campaign in large part on a "law and order" platform, consistently painting himself and his future administration as tough on crime. He has not wavered from this position, contrary to the claims of reform opponents who attempt to argue that the First Step Act’s reforms are soft on crime. The facts speak quite to the contrary.
There is nothing so tough on crime as preventing crime from happening, which is what the First Step Act is specifically designed, through evidence-based practices, to do. To be tough on crime, we must be smart on crime. States like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi, among numerous other traditionally red states, have proven as much. These reforms lower incarceration rates and crime rates simultaneously, while also bolstering the labor force and using government resources (aka taxpayer dollars) wisely.
President Trump threw his full weight behind this effort, in collaboration with Jared Kushner in the White House; congressional conservatives such as Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mike Lee of Utah, and Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia; and multiple law enforcement, faith, business, and conservative groups and leaders. Together they spurred rapid action in this year’s lame duck session of Congress.
Such widespread support for the First Step Act made the ultimately successful push for passage remarkable, in the face of extreme adversity from the fire of fellow Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and John Kennedy, R-La. The pair secured votes in the Senate on three divisions of one single amendment, each division maliciously intended to kill the First Step Act. All three divisions went down in flames immediately prior to the bill’s overwhelming passage, with a supermajority of senators or just under voting against all of these “poison pills.” Just before 9:00 that Tuesday night, the Senate voted 87-12 on final passage of the First Step Act.
Less than two days later, the House of Representatives voted to pass the First Step Act 358-36, a larger ratio supporting the final legislation than even the earlier version, which passed the House in May by a vote of 360-59. This is no surprise, as the bill was markedly improved in the Senate through the addition of modest sentencing reforms that make the legislation even more effeective for the federal system. President Trump signed the First Step Act into law that Friday.
Needless to say, Republicans have proven their critics wrong. Guided by long-time reformers from every sector both inside and outside of Washington, President Trump, who is always willing to make a deal for the public (especially the forgotten ones), has put himself on the right side of history with the First Step Act. History will look back fondly on this landmark bill.
Enacting this legislation is a huge bipartisan win for policy, society, and fairness. For an issue whose time is now, the federal government has finally delivered in an overwhelmingly bipartisan, constructive manner. This type of victory is huge for Washington. Even in a political atmosphere of discord and strife at nearly every other turn, justice reform has done what it does best: unites ideologies, hearts, individuals, and minds.
America is ready for transformative change in the criminal justice system that will end the revolving door of reincarceration and move instead toward rehabilitation of and opportunity for its incarcerated population. This shift, which is to be seen as the First Step Act is implemented in the months and years to come, is long awaited and is truly tough and smart on crime.