The First Step Act: A Calculated Risk for Republicans?

On Wednesday, President Trump enthusiastically threw his support behind the First Step Act, a piece of legislation aimed at reforming our criminal justice system. Unlike many other recent pieces of legislation, the First Step Act has fairly strong support among Republicans and Democrats. While it is not a “perfect” piece of legislation by any means, it could provide much-needed change to the criminal justice system and could also help people of various backgrounds. Should this act come to a vote, Republicans will be forced to decide whether they are willing to compromise on some of the act’s obvious and significant shortcomings to get it passed.

The First Step Act would make several notable changes. First, the Act would rectify the disparity in punishments/penalties relating to crack offenses. Previously, there was a huge disparity in punishment between those using crack cocaine and those using powdered cocaine. This disparity led to major racial imbalances in the system.

In addition, the act would give federal judges more discretion to circumvent mandatory minimum-sentencing guidelines for a wider array of people. Currently, judges can only do this for nonviolent drug offenders without any criminal history. The act, if passed, would extend this to people with limited criminal histories. It would also lighten the severity of some automatic sentences, such as the federal “three-strikes” law, although this would not be retroactive.

While the First Step Act contains some provisions that some hardline Republicans might oppose, Republicans (overall) could potentially help themselves should they support the act.

For example, the First Step Act has fairly strong bipartisan support, as many Republicans and Democrats recognize the drastic need for criminal justice reform. For Republicans, the opportunity to pass a piece of legislation that has bipartisan support should not be taken lightly in what has been an otherwise divisive political climate. It could also show Americans that Republicans are willing to “compromise” on certain issues for the betterment of all people.

Additionally, President Trump’s willingness to work with Democrats exerts pressure on many in the Democratic party who have been obsessed with investigating the president at the expense of working for the American people. According to a recent Fox News article:

Conventional wisdom suggests that divided government means stagnation and a halt to the legislative process. But President Trump is unconventional, offering post-partisan areas for compromise and leaving Democrats at a crossroads: legislate or investigate.

In the era of President Trump, divided government can work on behalf of the American people. It remains to be seen, however, whether Democrats will focus on trying to hurt the president instead of trying to help the American people they were elected to serve.

Moreover, if Republicans support this Act, they could also begin to discredit the stereotype that some Democrats have formed about Republicans/Conservatives. A 2017 article in Salon succinctly expressed this stereotype:

It is normal to feel aghast at and disgusted by the Republican Party's war on the poor. The more challenging and perhaps even more disturbing task is to ask why today's conservatives feel such antipathy, disregard and hostility toward poor and other vulnerable Americans. Certainly greed and a slavish devotion to a revanchist right-wing ideology are part of the answer. But they may not be sufficient

Notwithstanding these self-serving generalizations, the First Step Act will actually help various groups of people who were disproportionality and unfairly harmed by previous laws. The act will also help inmates seeking to reacclimate into society by providing them with training and/or education. As set forth in an article by NBC News, “If it is passed, thousands of federal prisoners would have access to more help preparing for life after the end of their sentences. Thousands of well-behaved prisoners would win freedom earlier. And thousands of people who are arrested for drug crimes in the future would become eligible for exemptions from harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws.”

Of course, the decision of whether to support this legislation is not without its hurdles. For example, some Republicans might view some of the act’s provisions as weak on crime, including those that lower mandatory minimum sentences, provide more judicial discretion when it comes to sentencing and/or lightening the severity of some automatic sentences. More to the point, a recent article in Conservative Review sharply criticized the act, stating, in part, that the act purports to only offer leniencies to “low-level, non-violent” offenders when this is not really the case.

The most important thing to understand about the First Step Act, S.3649, is that rather than narrowly and definitively defining “low-level” and targeting the early-release programs just for those individuals, the bill does the opposite. It grants early-release credits to everyone as a catch-all baseline and then writes into the statute specific exceptions. Thus, any criminal category that is not enumerated among the exceptions will be eligible for early release. The bill is artfully crafted with 11 pages of exceptions, which made it appear that many categories are excepted. But when you understand the nature of who is in federal prison and what they are actually convicted of (as opposed to initially charged with), you see that most of these exceptions are straw men.

In addition to the weakness of some of the act’s provisions, other problems could also arise. If sentences are reduced or shortened, for example, there could be more people who are eligible to vote. This could pose some problems for Republicans in the future (similar to the effect that Amendment 4 might have in Florida). According to BizPac Review, felons who are allowed to vote overwhelmingly favor Democrats.  

Republicans have an opportunity to show the American people that they are willing and able to put partisan politics aside when the circumstances warrant. The question in this case is whether enough Republicans are willing to compromise on some of the act’s obvious and significant shortcomings to get it passed and whether it is wise for them to do so. While people on both sides of the political aisle agree that criminal justice reform is necessary, they don’t necessarily agree on how to best accomplish this. If it doesn’t happen now, it could be much more difficult once the newly elected Congress takes its place.         

Mr. Hakim is a writer and a practicing attorney.  His articles have been published in The Washington Examiner, The Daily Caller, The Federalist, The Western Journal, American Thinker and other online publications.   

https://thoughtfullyconservative.wordpress.com

FB: ThoughtfullyConservative

Twitter: @ThoughtfulGOP

On Wednesday, President Trump enthusiastically threw his support behind the First Step Act, a piece of legislation aimed at reforming our criminal justice system. Unlike many other recent pieces of legislation, the First Step Act has fairly strong support among Republicans and Democrats. While it is not a “perfect” piece of legislation by any means, it could provide much-needed change to the criminal justice system and could also help people of various backgrounds. Should this act come to a vote, Republicans will be forced to decide whether they are willing to compromise on some of the act’s obvious and significant shortcomings to get it passed.

The First Step Act would make several notable changes. First, the Act would rectify the disparity in punishments/penalties relating to crack offenses. Previously, there was a huge disparity in punishment between those using crack cocaine and those using powdered cocaine. This disparity led to major racial imbalances in the system.

In addition, the act would give federal judges more discretion to circumvent mandatory minimum-sentencing guidelines for a wider array of people. Currently, judges can only do this for nonviolent drug offenders without any criminal history. The act, if passed, would extend this to people with limited criminal histories. It would also lighten the severity of some automatic sentences, such as the federal “three-strikes” law, although this would not be retroactive.

While the First Step Act contains some provisions that some hardline Republicans might oppose, Republicans (overall) could potentially help themselves should they support the act.

For example, the First Step Act has fairly strong bipartisan support, as many Republicans and Democrats recognize the drastic need for criminal justice reform. For Republicans, the opportunity to pass a piece of legislation that has bipartisan support should not be taken lightly in what has been an otherwise divisive political climate. It could also show Americans that Republicans are willing to “compromise” on certain issues for the betterment of all people.

Additionally, President Trump’s willingness to work with Democrats exerts pressure on many in the Democratic party who have been obsessed with investigating the president at the expense of working for the American people. According to a recent Fox News article:

Conventional wisdom suggests that divided government means stagnation and a halt to the legislative process. But President Trump is unconventional, offering post-partisan areas for compromise and leaving Democrats at a crossroads: legislate or investigate.

In the era of President Trump, divided government can work on behalf of the American people. It remains to be seen, however, whether Democrats will focus on trying to hurt the president instead of trying to help the American people they were elected to serve.

Moreover, if Republicans support this Act, they could also begin to discredit the stereotype that some Democrats have formed about Republicans/Conservatives. A 2017 article in Salon succinctly expressed this stereotype:

It is normal to feel aghast at and disgusted by the Republican Party's war on the poor. The more challenging and perhaps even more disturbing task is to ask why today's conservatives feel such antipathy, disregard and hostility toward poor and other vulnerable Americans. Certainly greed and a slavish devotion to a revanchist right-wing ideology are part of the answer. But they may not be sufficient

Notwithstanding these self-serving generalizations, the First Step Act will actually help various groups of people who were disproportionality and unfairly harmed by previous laws. The act will also help inmates seeking to reacclimate into society by providing them with training and/or education. As set forth in an article by NBC News, “If it is passed, thousands of federal prisoners would have access to more help preparing for life after the end of their sentences. Thousands of well-behaved prisoners would win freedom earlier. And thousands of people who are arrested for drug crimes in the future would become eligible for exemptions from harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws.”

Of course, the decision of whether to support this legislation is not without its hurdles. For example, some Republicans might view some of the act’s provisions as weak on crime, including those that lower mandatory minimum sentences, provide more judicial discretion when it comes to sentencing and/or lightening the severity of some automatic sentences. More to the point, a recent article in Conservative Review sharply criticized the act, stating, in part, that the act purports to only offer leniencies to “low-level, non-violent” offenders when this is not really the case.

The most important thing to understand about the First Step Act, S.3649, is that rather than narrowly and definitively defining “low-level” and targeting the early-release programs just for those individuals, the bill does the opposite. It grants early-release credits to everyone as a catch-all baseline and then writes into the statute specific exceptions. Thus, any criminal category that is not enumerated among the exceptions will be eligible for early release. The bill is artfully crafted with 11 pages of exceptions, which made it appear that many categories are excepted. But when you understand the nature of who is in federal prison and what they are actually convicted of (as opposed to initially charged with), you see that most of these exceptions are straw men.

In addition to the weakness of some of the act’s provisions, other problems could also arise. If sentences are reduced or shortened, for example, there could be more people who are eligible to vote. This could pose some problems for Republicans in the future (similar to the effect that Amendment 4 might have in Florida). According to BizPac Review, felons who are allowed to vote overwhelmingly favor Democrats.  

Republicans have an opportunity to show the American people that they are willing and able to put partisan politics aside when the circumstances warrant. The question in this case is whether enough Republicans are willing to compromise on some of the act’s obvious and significant shortcomings to get it passed and whether it is wise for them to do so. While people on both sides of the political aisle agree that criminal justice reform is necessary, they don’t necessarily agree on how to best accomplish this. If it doesn’t happen now, it could be much more difficult once the newly elected Congress takes its place.         

Mr. Hakim is a writer and a practicing attorney.  His articles have been published in The Washington Examiner, The Daily Caller, The Federalist, The Western Journal, American Thinker and other online publications.   

https://thoughtfullyconservative.wordpress.com

FB: ThoughtfullyConservative

Twitter: @ThoughtfulGOP