Criminal Justice Reform Bill – What is the First Step Act?

The US Senate voted to approve the First Step Act this week – a criminal justice reform bill that promises significant, common-sense changes to our federal justice system.

The bill was supported by Democrats, Republicans, and even President Trump. It’s had a difficult journey, with some on both sides of the aisle angling to either include more sweeping reforms or to lessen the bill’s effect.

How did a sweeping criminal justice reform bill get passed with Republicans at the helm and tough-on-crime President Trump calling the shots? Celebrities were involved, you can bet on that.

What’s included in the First Step Act and why does it matter?

How Did Criminal Justice Reform Get Passed?

Well, it hasn’t actually passed, yet. But it appears that it will.

Earlier this week, the Senate passed a modified version of the same bill that the House has already passed. The House must now approve the changes to the bill, and then the President must sign it before it becomes law. But all indications are that the House will approve it and the President will sign it.

Despite the efforts of some to prevent criminal justice reform, an unlikely coalition of Democrats, progressives, conservatives, and libertarians came together to push this bill through.

These unlikely allies negotiated, lobbied, helped to draft amendments, and put constant pressure on key decision makers like President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to keep the bill alive, get enough key players on board to pass it, and get it on the Senate floor for a vote:

At times the bill seemed poised to fail. Yet at crucial moments a surprising political alliance emerged to keep it alive, one made up of social progressives, black Democrats, members of the religious right, fiscal conservatives and libertarians. The effort has proved so resilient this time around, opponents have dubbed the First Step Act the “zombie bill” for its refusal to die.

What were some of the obstacles that the First Step Act’s advocates faced?

It’s a Bi-Partisan Bill

Wait, what? That should have made it easy, right?

The bill has support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and even President Trump got on board with it, tweeting his support and encouraging lawmakers to get it done.

After a couple of years of Trump’s thinly veiled racist rhetoric on issues like police reform, immigration, stop-and-frisk policies, and complaints about “the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.,” Democrats, Progressives, leaders in the black community, and others were suspicious and hesitant to support anything that Trump is behind:

Still, there was deep skepticism among Democrats. Many were averse to delivering Trump a win and felt that simply being on the same side of an issue as the President was politically dangerous, particularly given his heated rhetoric over policing and inner city crime.

According to reports, Jared Kushner played a key role in bringing together the deeply divided Congress. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who represents one of the most anti-Trump districts in the country, was persuaded by Kushner that the push for criminal justice reform was real. Jeffries then played a key role in persuading other key Democrats that this bill was genuine and worth getting behind.

A Willie Horton Moment

Trump expressed concern over the possibility of a “Willie Horton moment” – that someone who was released from prison could commit a horrible crime that would then be blamed on the President.

Republican governors, Kushner, and television personalities like Kim Kardashian and Van Jones apparently helped to persuade Trump that his Willie Horton fears were unfounded and that passing criminal justice reform is the right thing to do, reminding him of the stories of people like Alice Marie Johnson:

“He was afraid,” Jones said of the President. “He was concerned someone would get out, hurt someone and that would be the end of his political career.”

Jones, a CNN host and commentator, and Kardashian West sought to imprint the name of another convicted felon in Trump’s mind: Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old woman who had been serving a life sentence for money laundering and a nonviolent drug offense until Trump granted her clemency in June to broad acclaim. Every time Trump mentioned Horton, Jones and Kardashian West reminded him of Johnson.

Kim Kardashian West Rocks

Kushner apparently invited the star power of Kim Kardashian West and Van Jones, a CNN commentator, to the White House to help persuade the reluctant President to get behind the bill.

Which makes this at least the second time that Kardashian West has used her star status and access to Trump to advocate for much-needed criminal justice reform. Earlier this year, Kardashian West also played a key role in securing a pardon for Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old great-grandmother who served 21 years in prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense:

And then Kim Kardashian West visited the White House, chatted with Trump, and Johnson was pardoned. Kardashian West didn’t know Johnson, she just read her story online.

So, moral arguments and sound, expert legal advice did nothing to help Alice Johnson, while a celebrity’s appeal made all the difference. I don’t know what that says about our country or our legal system, but we should celebrate any victory for justice.

What’s in the First Step Act?

So, what’s in the First Step Act, anyway?

First of all, it’s a First Step towards criminal justice reform – the intent of the bill is to begin the process of reforming some of our country’s most draconian, mean, and nonsensical criminal laws.

The reforms in the First Step Act include:

  • Making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive (the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentencing);
  • Reducing some of the mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes;
  • Making the “three strikes law” a mandatory 25-year sentence instead of life in prison;
  • Increasing the number of “good time credits” that inmates can earn each year;
  • Allowing “earned time credits” that will encourage inmates to participate in vocational and rehabilitation programs and allowing more inmates to be released to halfway houses or home confinement at the end of their sentences;
  • Providing funding for programs that are “focused on skill-building, education, and vocational training;”
  • Banning the shackling of women during childbirth (yes, the federal government and many states are doing this); and
  • Requiring that inmates be housed closer to their families (within 500 miles of their family).

It’s a good start for criminal justice reform in America, and it sounds like it wasn’t easy to get it done. Thank you to everyone who supported the bill and put in the hard work to make it happen.

Criminal Defense Lawyer in Myrtle Beach, Lexington, and Columbia SC

Lacey Thompson only accepts criminal cases in the Columbia, Lexington, and Myrtle Beach areas of South Carolina.

If you have been arrested and charged with a crime in SC, or if you believe you are under investigation, call us now at 843-444-6122 or send an email to talk with a SC criminal defense attorney today.

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