‘Tears of Joy’: Championed By Diverse Leaders, First Step Act Signed Into Law

Families with incarcerated loved ones rejoice at the overwhelming support Congress and President Trump showed them by enacting the bipartisan prison reform bill.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., right, turns back to shake hands with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, second from left, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018, on prison reform legislation. A criminal justice bill passed in the Senate gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and boosts prisoner rehabilitation efforts. They are joined on stage by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., left, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., second from right.

By Josh Shepherd Published on December 21, 2018

On Thursday morning, the U.S. House voted 358-36 to approve the First Step Act. The prison reform bill is recognized as the most significant criminal justice reform law in a decade. Over the past year, it has been backed by Prison Fellowship, Right on Crime, the ACLU and other diverse partners.

Supporters of the bill were overwhelmed by Tuesday’s Senate vote of 87-12 in support. “Tears of joy happening right now,” stated Heather Rice-Minus of Prison Fellowship. “This justice reform bill is poised to pass just in time for the holidays. [I am] hopeful for our brothers and sisters behind bars.”

Known for its nonpartisan evangelical stance, Prison Fellowship is among several faith-based nonprofits expected to benefit from the revised policies. The new law provides qualifying groups greater access to assist inmates. As their vice president of government affairs, Rice-Minus has worked for years to coalesce support for prison reform — particularly among Christians and conservatives.

President Trump signed the bill Friday morning at the White House.

Supporters note that several proposed reforms did not advance in the legislative process. They are hopeful the law is indeed a “first step” for justice.

Unprecedent Cooperation On Left and Right

Following the Senate vote, Senators Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, embraced each other. It was a tangible sign of the bill’s broad coalition support.

The two are opposed on most issues. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Grassley has been key to Trump administration successes in confirming new judges over the past two years. Booker, meanwhile, has been widely discussed as a 2020 candidate for the Democratic Party.

In this coalition of unlikely partners, liberal leaders praised the right, and the leaders on the right returned the praise. President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner found an ally in former Obama administration official Van Jones. Both worked tirelessly to address criticisms from within their communities.

“You have to give President Trump some credit,” said Jones on CNN, an assertion not commonly heard on the network. “This bill could have died a dozen different deaths. But the broad coalition that came together to pass it refused to give up. Many have seen their loved ones sent to prison or were incarcerated themselves. For all of us, this fight was deeply personal.”

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has championed the bill over the past year in conservative circles. He chided the few dissenting Senators on the far right, who changed their positions on the First Step Act — and their objections to it — multiple times.

What the New Law Does

“This is a huge win for America and President Trump,” said Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah. “Thanks to the hard work of my colleagues, American families will be stronger and our communities will be safer.” A former federal prosecutor, Lee offered a comprehensive defense of the bill when conservative critics claimed it was “not tough on crime.”

David Safavian

David Safavian

FIRST STEP is an acronym for Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed, Safely Transitioning Every Person. The legislation provides a new avenue for certain federal prisoners to earn earlier release. (Sentences are still ultimately decided by judges.) Inmates will be able to complete educational courses and job training proven to help them reenter society.

“This approach has been proven to work in the states,” said David Safavian, general counsel for American Conservative Union. “We are certain it will be successful at the federal level to make us all safer. [This] is a starkly conservative bill, focusing on public safety first. It is based on evidence, instead of emotion.”

Currently, the recidivism rate stands at 49 percent — meaning half of federal prisoners are rearrested. Studies show that ethnic minorities, particularly black men, are disproportionately incarcerated. This prison reform bill begins to address such systemic issues.

“This justice reform bill is poised to pass just in time for the holidays. [I am] hopeful for our brothers and sisters behind bars.” – Heather Rice-Minus

The First Step Act also prohibits the practice of shackling pregnant prisoners. Furthermore, it requires that prisoners be held no more than 500 driving miles from their home. This enables family visitation, which studies have shown can reduce recidivism.

“Second Step” in 2019?

Diverse coalition members have expressed hope that their work will continue in 2019.

Senator Tim Scott, R.-S. Carolina, pressed for a vote on a policy addressing concerns about police shootings in recent years. His amendment, which would mandate local law enforcement agencies report when officers fatally shoot civilians, did not receive a vote. Scott has stated his intent to advance the criminal justice policy in the future.

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For her part, Heather Rice-Minus has a particular reform agenda in mind. “What’s the next step?” she asked on Twitter. “There are many more issues to tackle, but prison education is one that makes the top of my list.”

With this initial success, criminal justice may emerge as one of few policy areas on which the divided Congress can find common ground.

 

Explore The Stream’s coverage of criminal justice reform. Add your name to the Justice Declaration, a coalition convened by Prison Fellowship.

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  • Al Lejdly

    You can’t change the man until he changes his heart.

  • Ray

    I saw a TV program on prisons once, and they actually encouraged inmates to join a gang.

  • Anthony Cieszkiewicz

    Only time will tell us if the programs restores criminals to become productive and contributing members of society or not or if this is merely a mechanism for early release to the detriment the unrepentant, their families, their friends, their neighbors and society.

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