I spend enough time bashing Donald Trump, and for good reason, but let me give credit where credit is due. His endorsement of a criminal justice reform package working its way through Congress is an important development. Presidential endorsement can really help a bill advance and this is a good bill.
The bill includes a number of important reforms. First, it would apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between sentences for crack and sentences for cocaine, to convictions prior to 2010. That would shorten the sentences of about 3000 people convicted of drug crimes involving crack, which means mostly minorities. Second, it changes the calculations for “good-time credit,” which would make thousands of inmates eligible for parole earlier than they are now.
Third, it incentivizes inmates to take advantage of educational and training programs, giving them credit for them that counts toward early parole and the use of halfway houses and house arrest rather than imprisonment. And it expands and funds more such programs. It also makes it easier for judges to exercise discretion and not hand out the minimum mandatory sentences in many cases.All of these are good and necessary reforms, but they don’t go nearly far enough. But the bill is called the First Step Act and I hope this is the first of many reforms to come. These reforms apply only to the federal courts, which is a tiny subset of the courts, jails and prisons at the state level. But many states have started passing similar reforms, including doing away with civil asset forfeiture. And surprisingly, the usually “tough on crime” conservatives have helped get them passed. At the state level, it’s a massive expense, often dwarfing every other type of spending.
We need far more than this, but I’ll take it as a first step. And whatever his motivation might be, I’m glad Trump is endorsing it. Every now and then we do get a little bipartisan action to do something that is genuinely good public policy. This is one of those times.