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November 25, 2019

An early review of an eventful first year for the FIRST STEP Act

Though the official one-year anniversary of the passage of the FIRST STEP Act is still four weeks away, I suppose it is not too early for some review and reflection on the eventful year that was.  Here is a new NBC News piece in this spirit which has this lengthy full headline: "The First Step Act promised widespread reform.  What has the criminal justice overhaul achieved so far?  The law's effects are real almost a year later, experts say.  But some are concerned whether the bipartisan alliance that produced it can hold together."  I recommend this lengthy piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Nearly a year after the First Step Act's passage, NBC News spoke to over a dozen people, including former and current elected officials, liberal and conservative advocates, and formerly incarcerated individuals, among others, who championed the reforms. They all agreed that the law's effects are tangible, and many believe the bipartisan coalition that produced it appears durable.

“I think the biggest win is that this is now a safe issue after years and years and years of the two parties trying to use criminal justice as a way to tear each other down,” said Jessica Jackson, co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice reform nonprofit.

However, some are skeptical the alliance can hold. Many of the next steps advocates have underscored as necessary to bring about true change, like reexamining lengthy sentences for violent offenses and restructuring policing practices, may be a tougher sell. "As some people might say, it's easier to kind of agree on some of the low-hanging fruits, but the higher you reach, the more difficult consensus is going to be,” said Tim Head, the executive director for the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a conservative nonprofit that supports the act as well as other criminal justice reform efforts.

More than 3,000 inmates have been released and another roughly 1,700 people convicted of crack cocaine offenses have seen their sentences reduced thanks to the First Step Act, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Sentencing Commission....

But the effects of the act's other major provision — the relaxing of the notorious "three strikes" rule to mean a 25-year sentence, rather than life in prison, for three or more convictions — are so far difficult to measure. A year in, little data has been collected around how many people had been sentenced under the new guidelines.

The act also a required the development of a new risk assessment tool that aims to determine which inmates are most likely to re-offend if released and to identify ways to assist those who are released. It was completed in July. Meanwhile, roughly 16,000 federal prisoners have enrolled in drug treatment programs created by the act, according to the Justice Department.

The success — or limitations — of the tool and the new programs still remain to be seen, but advocates say the overall represent a major shift in thinking. "It's part of wider system transformation from one that was based on gut instinct and anecdotes and headlines to decisions that are made based on evidence and research," said Adam Gelb, the founder of the Council on Criminal Justice, a bipartisan criminal justice nonprofit.

However, he added, the nuances of implementation matter. "We're talking about human behavior and it's never going to be a perfect assessment of someone's readiness for release nor a perfect judgment about the length of time they deserve to spend behind bars for the purposes punishment," he said.

Head, the executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the act's changes, which also include mandating BOP train its 31,000 employees on de-escalation techniques and mental health awareness, intended to shift "the culture of our federal system from pure punishment, to one of at least considering rehabilitation in a much more meaningful way."...

Advocates for the First Step Act, particularly left-leaning ones, described its reforms as historic but modest. True change will require looking to the heart of the system — police interactions and what happens inside courtrooms, experts said. Right now, black Americans are more likely to be arrested for the same activities as white Americans, and more likely to be prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to longer jail terms....

To make a more significant dent in the nation’s prison population, attention must shift toward the roots of mass incarceration, said Tony J. Payton Jr., a Democrat and former Pennsylvania state lawmaker who championed state-level criminal justice reforms. “We’ve got to basically dismantle that entire system,” said Payton, who is now affiliated with the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, a national and bipartisan coalition of black criminal justice reformers.

Payton's list of targets, however, points to some of the remaining contentious matters in criminal justice reform that could threaten the bipartisanship needed to implement them, such as sentencing reform for both non-violent and violent offenders, eliminating mandatory minimums, reforming police departments and eliminating prosecutorial immunity.

November 25, 2019 at 10:39 AM | Permalink

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