Pete Souza
Politics /07 Dec 2018
and 12.07.18

2020 Democratic Hopefuls Must Support the First Step Act

For some, it goes too far. For others, not far enough. Welcome to life in the well-divided electorate of the United States of America.

Call it the First Step Act, or call it the Baby Step Act; prominent Democrats need to come out swinging for the first major prison reform bill in years.

His many critics in the press are always desperate to avoid crediting Trump with anything. “Trump’s Criminal Justice Reform Is a Step in the Wrong Direction,” read a headline in the New York Times. “FIRST STEP Act includes serious missteps toward injustice,” read another in the USA Today.

The First Step Act enjoys a great deal of bipartisan support.

The ACLU favors this legislation, even prison-reform crusader Van Jones has voiced his support, going as far as to say “Give Trump credit on prison reform.” “The FIRST STEP Act will bring real justice to thousands of incarcerated women,” according to Topeka K. Sam for The Hill.

Though the First Step Act is universally acknowledged as a first step, only, it still has a great deal to recommend it:

  • Plans to reduce federal incarceration with a new system for calculating early release using “good time” credits.
  • Plans to immediately release 4,000 people convicted of low-level drug offenses through retroactive credits.
  • Improvement to prison conditions; placement of inmates closer to their families and the banning of shackling women in labor.
  • Increased inmate exposure to rehabilitative programs that help reduce re-offending.

Democrats: Pick Your Battles

Democrats can safely support First Step. Aspirants to the 2020 Democratic nomination for president will have no shortage of scandals and sound-bytes with which to criticize President Donald Trump.

If the 2020 election were tomorrow, Trump’s Democratic Party challenger would already have absolutely no trouble reminding deeply incensed Democratic voters (and Independents for that matter) of the many ways in which the Trump administration has failed to act in accordance with their values systems.

What’s more, President Trump will probably continue to anger and outrage Democrats well into 2019. He knows they won’t be voting for him anyway, so he panders to his base supporters. He hasn’t yet learned the subtle political art of doing this without appearing to do it.

Fight the border wall and everything it stands for. Fight for environmental protections that have been undermined. Fight for voting rights. But do not fight against prison reform because you hate Donald Trump.

Support the First Step Act because you care about the incarcerated people it will free, and free earlier. Support it for the families waiting at home. Support it for the productive citizens released inmates will become as a result of rehabilitation programs.

Democrats don’t even have to declare a Trump victory anyway. Here’s how to undermine the accomplishment.

Credit President Obama Instead

Luckily, much of the credit for prison reform can go to former President Barack Obama, who spent a great deal of his presidency on reforming the U.S. prison system and bemoaning its lack of second chances.

The Economist wrote about “How Barack Obama has reformed America’s prisons” in January 2016. Obama accomplished a number of precursors to the First Step Act in its current form:

  • Increased commutations for individuals still incarcerated under overly-harsh drug penalties under his Clemency Initiative. The First Step Act picks up where this left off, applying the fair sentencing act of 2010 more widely.
  • Created a presidential commission to study mass incarceration. Without this information, the First Step Act would not have been possible.
  • Ended the Federal Financial Subsidization of Mass Incarceration, ending financial support for unwise and ineffective drug war policies.
  • Worked to “Ban the Box” asking potential Federal employees if they have been convicted of a crime.

Though some criticized Obama for not going far enough, the greatest concerns were that Obama made progress on criminal justice reform. Will it survive the next president?

The answer? Yes, it can. But not without the help of prominent Democrats.

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