Pubdate: Wed, 12 Jun 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2019 The New York Times Company
Source: New York Times (NY)


New data about the effects of the First Step Act, a bipartisan prison
reform bill that President Trump signed into law in December, is
showing that past injustices can be corrected, even in the most
politically polarized of times.

Last week, the United States Sentencing Commission, an independent
agency that advises federal judges on carrying out changes to
sentencing policy, reported that in the four months after the law went
into effect, more than 1,000 federal inmates were granted a sentence
reduction for offenses involving crack cocaine. In 2010, Congress
passed legislation to address these racially unjust sentences, but
that change wasn't retroactive.

The old crack laws were a vestige of the racist war on drugs started
in the 1970s. Offenders convicted of crack-related offenses, a vast
majority of them African-American, received unduly punitive sentences
- - about 100 times harsher than those imposed on white, more affluent
offenders who were convicted of crimes related to powdered cocaine.
(Crack is the rock form of powdered cocaine.)

Under the First Step Act's retroactive application, federal inmates
across the country who had been sentenced under the old crack laws
began to apply for relief - and judges began reducing their sentences,
which resulted in many of them being set free. According to the
Sentencing Commission, the average sentence reduction has been 73
months, or a little more than six years.

Ninety-one percent of those people who have benefited from the
reduction are black.

Matthew Charles, whom Mr. Trump invited to the State of the Union
address in February, was among the first people to invoke the First
Step Act in court. A Sentencing Commission analysis estimated that as
of May 2018 there were around 2,660 cases like Mr. Charles's - people
sentenced under repudiated crack laws who are now eligible for more
equitable treatment.

There's more to the First Step Act than sentencing reform. Under
William Barr, the attorney general, the Justice Department has begun
to put into effect other requirements of the law, such as the
development of a risk and needs assessment tool that the Trump
administration expects will lead to the release of an additional 3,000
inmates once fully completed, with many thousands more expected to
benefit in the years ahead - inmates who are deemed to be low-risk and
who demonstrate good conduct while incarcerated.

The success of the law's sentencing measures is significant, however,
given that many civil rights advocates expressed sharp opposition to
earlier, weaker versions of the bill, even as the former attorney
general, Jeff Sessions, mounted his own opposition to the

Still, more can be done. As with any law, the First Step Act's success
is tied to a chief executive's willingness to see it flourish. Mr.
Trump has yet to renominate individuals to fill four vacancies at the
Sentencing Commission, which currently lacks a quorum and is hamstrung
from moving forward on technical components of the First Step Act that
could give judges greater guidance on "compassionate release" and
other provisions that would shorten some prison sentences.

The president can be proud of the passage of the First Step Act. But
the law's true measure, and promise, will be determined by how it is
enforced to do justice on the ground.
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