Editor’s Note: CNN host Van Jones and Jessica Jackson are cofounders of #cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice initiative of the Dream Corps. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the authors’ own. View more opinion at CNN.
For some, it’s hard to imagine anything good happening in the middle of the Trump era – especially for black, brown and low-income people. But believe it or not, something truly beautiful is happening in Washington, DC, on the least likely of issues – criminal justice reform.
Earlier this year, a tiny handful of “true believers” decided to try to fix the federal justice system as much as possible – in part by implementing reforms that have succeeded in red states like Texas and Georgia. Few gave us a prayer of success. But, against all odds, we won. And Friday morning, President Donald Trump signed into law a measure that amounts to what the New York Times calls “the most significant changes to the criminal justice system in a generation.”
Dubbed the First Step Act, the new law turns federal prisons toward rehabilitation. It begins to tackle some of the harsh sentencing policies that result in so many people going to prison for far too long. And it gives new protections to women and juveniles in the federal prison system. The US Senate passed it 87-12 and the US House passed it 358-36.
To the shock of many, Trump gave this law not only his signature but his full, vocal and enthusiastic support. How is this possible? After all – candidate Trump never positively mentioned “criminal justice reform” on the campaign trail. In fact, he ran on the slogan “law and order” and savaged Obama’s efforts at reform. The day after he was elected, the value of private prison stocks went through the roof; investors anticipated a possible expansion of jail beds under the tough-talking president-elect. In Trump’s inaugural address, he painted a bleak picture of “American carnage” and implied that he would take an iron-fisted approach to public order.
What happened? On the one hand, red state Republicans who had simultaneously cut both their own prison population and their crime rate weighed in heavily; they repeatedly prevailed upon Trump to update his thinking. Secondly, some key advisers underscored the political benefits to Trump of him championing an issue popular in the swing states.
But the bulk of the credit for this victory goes to formerly incarcerated people and their family members, who visited the White House and swarmed Capitol Hill for months, telling their stories of horror and hope. Building on serious legislative spade work that had begun under the Obama administration, these advocates refused to take no for an answer. They revived the bill’s fortunes again and again, after mainstream observers had written the measure off.
The most famous of those impacted family members was, of course, Jared Kushner – Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser – whose own father went to prison. Kushner’s dogged determination to fix the system proved decisive in persuading his father-in-law and building a coalition big enough to win.
There is much to celebrate about the mushrooming, bipartisan movement that grew up around this bill – and the new law itself:
1. Federal prisons will also rehabilitate and heal - not just punish.
The First Step Act mandates a new Risk and Needs Assessment system that matches people in prison to the programs and classes most supportive of their growth and transformation. As an incentive to participate, people earn 10 days of Earned Time Credit for every 30 days of programming. These credits are used to exchange time in prison for more time in halfway houses, home confinement or supervised release - easing the re-entry process. Unfortunately, some people (based on their offenses) are excluded from cashing in their credits. However, everyone benefits from the assessment and programs. People with the highest risks and needs will actually be prioritized for the most programming. This entirely new system could help transform federal prisons into places of rehabilitation – so that more people come home job-ready, leading to stronger families and safer communities.
2. Thousands serving outdated sentences for crack cocaine charges can come home – and some wrong-headed components of the 1994 Crime Bill get scaled back.
The bill provides relief to 3,000 people serving harsh and outdated sentences for old crack cocaine charges, which weighed one gram of crack cocaine as equivalent to 100 grams of powder cocaine. It would also eliminate mandatory life sentences for Third Strike drug offenders, end the stacking of 924(c) “guns and drug” sentences and give judges more discretion to sentence below their mandatory minimum. With these changes, some people facing the brunt of extraordinarily harsh federal sentencing can finally get some relief.
3. Less obvious changes win big applause from people in federal prison and their families.
Because the bill was informed by people who have actually been incarcerated themselves - or had loved ones incarcerated - it is full of provisions that will dramatically improve the lives of people in prison:
Right now, a federal prisoner can be sent to facilities thousands of miles from their families, making visitation nearly impossible. The First Step Act forces the Bureau of Prisons to place people in facilities within 500 driving miles of their loved ones, helping people maintain strong bonds despite incarceration.
Congress mandated that people in prison should earn 54 days of Good Time Credit, if they don’t get into serious trouble. But a questionable calculation method has been used to short-change them and only grant 47 days of credit. The First Step Act fixes this calculation, granting the full 54 days off, each year, as Congress intended. The extra seven days per year may not sound like a lot, but to people in prison and their loved ones, every single day matters.
The bill also allocates $375 million over five years for programming and classes. It enables more volunteers, nonprofits, faith-based groups and universities to provide desperately needed prison programming. With 15,000 people currently on waitlists for basic literacy classes, these new resources will be transformative.
The bill also improves the compassionate release process, making it easier for people in prison who are terminally ill and elderly to come home, requires prisons to help people get their IDs prior to release so they can more easily obtain employment and housing, sets up savings accounts where 15% of funds are placed into an account for use upon release and bans the practice of putting juveniles in solitary confinement.
The best part: In a law that excludes some incarcerated people from opportunities based on their offenses, these aspects of the bill will benefit 100% of the people in federal prison.
4. Incarcerated women and juveniles will suffer less.
Topeka K. Sam, a Democrat from New York, traveled to a White House Prison Reform Summit in May where she talked about serving time in federal prison. Days later, important provisions addressing women’s needs were added to the First Step Act. The bill now bans the shackling of women who are pregnant in labor, and post-partum. It also provides women in prison with adequate feminine hygiene products, free of charge, so women would no longer have to choose between paying for phone calls to their kids or buying tampons and pads.
5. Congress will have new “sunshine” mechanisms to help hold the Bureau of Prisons accountable for public safety and racial disparities.
The First Step Act includes important auditing and reporting requirements, which will help ensure that the Bureau of Prisons and Attorney General’s office implement the bill properly. These safeguards include a mandate to track, report and work to fix any racial disparities in the system. Congress currently lacks meaningful oversight over federal prisons, which is why prisons are consistently overcapacity, halfway houses are underutilized and federal prisoners have suffered. Sunshine is often the best medicine, especially when it comes to opaque institutions like prisons.
6. This is a rare clean bill that “does no harm.”
There are no new mandatory minimums or sentencing enhancements. None! Previous federal proposals had to exchange proposing some good elements with some bad ones – like shrinking sentences for “nonviolent drug offenses,” while expanding sentences for some other crime categories. Proponents of the First Step Act fought tooth and nail to keep this bill clean. While last-minute compromises mean this law will help fewer people than it should, it won’t harm anyone by adding time to anyone’s sentence, now or in the future.
7. One of America’s most “tough on crime” Presidents has become a vocal proponent of “smart on crime” policies.
Despite his negative campaign rhetoric, his rollback of Obama-era criminal justice policies, his nomination of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and now William Barr, Donald Trump has increasingly become a champion of making smart reforms to the justice system. Trump dedicated 39 words in his 2018 State of the Union address to second chances for people who have made bad decisions. He then granted clemency to a black grandmother sentenced to die in federal prison. He created an interagency task force to leverage federal government resources for people coming home from prison. And he vocally endorsed and lobbied for the prison and sentencing reform components of the First Step Act. As strong Democrats, we disagree with the bulk of Trump’s agenda. But his support for smart safety policies like the First Step Act deserves praise; the new law is already having a galvanizing effect on reform efforts at the state and local level. Republican governors are now scrambling to implement their own smart-on-crime agendas; Democrats can now offer even bolder proposals.
A host of conservative leaders – from Sean Hannity to Candice Owens – vociferously supported this bill. Law enforcement groups like the Fraternal Order of Police and the business community came out in support of second chances for those leaving prison. Major players in the business world, including FOX Broadcasting, the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce, endorsed the bill. For the first time in generations, principled conservatives came out en masse on the side of punishment-plus-rehabilitation over punishment-only – and called for a more fair, humane and effective justice system.
9. Justice reform advocates broke the McConnell roadblock.
8. The conservative movement has embraced justice reform with unprecedented force and passion.
For the past six years, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has notoriously stalled, deprioritized or outright prevented criminal justice legislation from reaching the floor. He shamelessly blocked a justice reform package in the Obama era. But after facing massive pressure from a President in his own party, McConnell finally agreed to bring criminal justice reform to the floor for a vote. One can now reasonably assume that the US Senate is now open for more business on the topic going forward.
10. The cynics lost.
Most people thought that criminal justice reform would not happen, especially in the Trump era. The liberal establishment – including the Washington Post, ACLU and NAACP – aggressively opposed the original measure, saying that the bill didn’t go far enough. Those forces were chastened in the House, as the original House measure passed 360-59. Their concerns yielded a stronger bill in the Senate. But then the old law-and-order conservative establishment – led by Sen. Tom Cotton – unleashed a fear-mongering crusade to derail the stronger measure. Thankfully, those ultra-conservatives forces were crushed, too, as every Cotton “poison pill” amendment went down in defeat and US Senate passed the bill 87-12.
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This movement was also blessed to have the support of luminaries like human rights heavyweight Bryan Stevenson and Dr. Bernice King (MLK’s daughter). Celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and Isaiah Washington weighed in. Countless grassroots groups, leaders and lawmakers fought hard.
Working together, we proved – once again – that no power on Earth can stop an idea whose time has come.