Bipartisan criminal justice reform has been knocking around the nation’s capital for a while. It almost got done in 2015 before sinking in Washington’s dysfunction. But now, unexpectedly, a window has opened to make long-overdue changes. Jeff Sessions, who opposed the reforms, was fired as attorney general earlier this month. President Donald Trump, previously a foe, reversed his position and signaled his support for a bill being developed in the Senate. There is urgency among its sponsors to get it done by year’s end. It’s time to move it forward.
Principally, the bill would unwind some of the harsh measures of the 1980s and 1990s that led to African-American offenders being incarcerated at much higher rates than white offenders. It’s a big improvement over a bill passed earlier in the House of Representatives, which focused primarily on improving prison conditions and making it easier for inmates to re-enter society. The Senate version does that, but it also would allow judges to ignore onerous mandatory minimum sentencing rules for a wider group of nonviolent drug offenders while reducing those minimums from 20 years to 15 years. It would make retroactive a 2010 law that reduced the disparity in sentences for crack and powder-cocaine offenses, which also disproportionately affected black people. It also would ban the restraint of pregnant female inmates with shackles. We wish more of the sentencing changes were retroactive, but on balance the First Step Act is a good step forward.
Supporters range from the conservative Koch brothers to the liberal American Civil Liberties Union. But some hard-line senators are balking, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the chamber has a lot to get done by the end of December and it’s unlikely there will be time to consider the legislation.
Trump can make the difference. He has vacillated before, offering surprising support for immigration reform, for example, only to change his mind again. This time Trump needs to be unwavering, make criminal justice reform a priority, and push all parties to bring home this bill that would start to correct some grievous injustices. Let’s get this done, at last.