by Robert Wood, Senior Social Media Advisor – The Prison Scholar Fund
The First Step Act was a win for what it did accomplish. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was made retroactive and people who had previously served way too much time under the previous unfair crack laws can now seek relief under much fairer terms. The complete 54 days of good time a year is now applied to every year you are sentenced to instead of just every year you do and on average that means seven more days a year off of peoples’ sentences. It will also be applied retroactively to people who are currently incarcerated. At this time I must commend all involved in the effort to get this legislation passed. However, there are some flaws and shortcomings which must be discussed in preparation for the bold steps that must be taken to follow this all important first step. It is no fault of those who worked tirelessly to breathe this law into reality. Quite to the contrary; it is merely a call for them to keep up the great and very important work they are doing.
Prior to the First Step Act actually passing into law there was lots more hope and optimism about it amongst prisoners, their families, their loved ones, and those who really believe in justice for all. Initially it was great bill which would right many wrongs and even change the way lots people view criminal justice within the United States. Once it finally did pass many of the teeth were yanked right out of it. There was a diversity of reaction from incarcerated people and their family members. Most of the things which should have gone RETROACTIVE in the interest of fairness were gutted. There was a failure to address giving Pell grants to the incarcerated for the purpose of seeking higher education and/or vocational training that could be life changing as far as reentering society with employable skills and rebuilding people’s lives goes. People who have waited very long, decades in some cases, were denied the justice that would have came with full retroactivity.
Because in order to pass the bill, in most places where it represented the very spirit of fundamental fairness, retroactivity was yanked out with nearly all the rest of the bills teeth. That meant that the adjustments made to mandatory minimum sentencing for the purpose of fundamental fairness would not be available for those who suffered, and still suffer, under the previous laws. Families that were looking forward to loved ones finally coming home were devastated to find out the new law did nothing at all to right previous egregious wrongs and instead focused mostly on future behavior for the distinct purpose of denying those already incarcerated the justice them and their loved ones have longed for. Mother’s had to tell their children daddy still wasn’t coming home. Fathers had to inform small children, in many cases, that mom would remain incarcerated for 20 years, 25 years, or even life for drugs charges which should carry less than half that time, and does in some state and local jurisdictions. Non-violent offenders were devastated with no retroactivity and violent offenders -those whom society needs to see rehabilitated the most- were denied the most serious credit and incentives for their rehabilitative efforts under this new law. Time off the sentence and extra halfway house are the ultimate incentives and should definitely be available to the entire incarcerated population. Although a big improvement from the previous status quo, this new law must be taken a step further in the interest of real justice.
Granted it was a first step and it is a finally a start, but what the house passed and what had to be given up merely to get it put to a vote in the senate crippled many of the positive effects of The First Step Act as it transitioned from a mere bill into an actual law. Jared Kushner, Van Jones, Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West, Weldon Angelos, Snoop Dogg, the Koch Brothers, and many others, including President Trump himself, worked very hard to get this piece of bipartisan legislation passed. It was supported by Democrats, most Republicans, and even some law enforcement and correctional officers unions, and yet with all that support it was gutted and severely crippled at the finish line. The good news is it’s only “The First Step” and the second step will, and must, remedy many of the grievances it gave way to. This race is not a sprint. It’s a marathon and our resolve must endure if we are to finally make it right.
In the Second Step Act, or the Giant Step Act as I hope it will be, felons reentering society should be given the right to vote so that when they get out they’ll have full citizenship, full buy in, and full participation in this great democracy restored. Pell Grants should be made available for prisoners so that the real rehabilitation which is available through education is possible for all. Every component of the First Step Act should become retroactive so that justice is served to those that thirst for it and the families who are also affected by the great desert of injustice which leaves them thirsting for their loved ones while the current law itself states their injustices would be quenched if only they were given the benefit of retroactivity. Let’s quench this thirst for justice with a big bold swig of sentencing and criminal justice reform in the very near future. As a nation we just proved the we have the will. Now let’s get together and make a way.