With the First Step in Question, What’s Next?

Contributed by Amara Willey.

Status of federal criminal justice reform legislation


The December criminal justice reform law called the First Step Act has many benefits for both adult and juvenile offenders. Although the bill received bipartisan support and was touted as a win for Trump, his mid-March budget does not include enough funding for it. Further, federal expansion of background checks for job applicants undermines the letter of the law. However, expansion of criminal justice reform will undoubtedly be a part of the 2020 election, with the introduction of Sen. Cory Booker’s Next Step bill.

The First Step Act, signed into law in December 2018, provides reforms for federal prisons and sentencing, more education and job training, and rehabilitative programs for inmates. This bipartisan law, which seemed to have the support of the President, has a number of challenges facing it.

Funding the law requires $75 million per year for five years. As of this writing, how the law will get this funding is not clear. President Trump’s mid-March budget draft underfunded the program by more than $60 million for the first year. The Justice Department could choose to reallocate funds or use savings from the early release of prisoners to help fund the program to help make up the shortfall. Further, it is unlikely that the draft will pass Congress.

Prisoners slated to be released on good behavior under the First Step Act may have to wait as much as seven months for their release while the programs in the Act are being implemented. The Federal Bureau of Prisons said in a statement to Mother Jones: “We know that inmates and their families are particularly interested in the changes regarding good conduct time, but, it is not effective immediately, nor is it applicable to all inmates.”

One of the most promising programs, Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention which revamps how states treat juvenile offenders, was unmentioned in President Trump’s State of the Union address. Under the new law, states are required to collect data on racial disparities in the juvenile system and develop strategies for addressing inequality. Failure to comply will affect federal funding allocations to those states for the purpose of data collection. The law mitigates sentencing for juveniles, prohibits the holding of juveniles in adult facilities, and prevents states from detaining juveniles for more than seven days for truancy or running away from home.

“This legislation strengthens each of the core protections for children in the juvenile justice system,” Rep. Bobby Scott (D) of Virginia said in a statement when the bill passed the House in December. “It ensures children are treated separately — both in approach and location — than adult offenders; it shifts the focus from punishing young people to supporting them through education and programming; and it puts a spotlight on the racial disparities in our juvenile justice system.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the Federal government seems to be moving towards expanding background checks for federal job applicants, which is exactly opposite to the spirit of the new law. The criminal justice journalism non-profit organization, The Marshall Project, reported that the US Office of Personnel Management wants to expand criminal background checks for applicants of federal jobs and contracting positions, requiring them to disclose not only if they’ve served prison sentences, but also if they’ve spent time in jail or gone through diversion programs. The ACLU believes this will interfere with state and local courts’ choice to utilize diversion programs as an alternative. It’s just a proposal for now, and the public has until April 23 to submit comments on the idea at www.regulations.gov.

In early March, NJ Senator and presidential candidate, Cory Booker, who was instrumental in the passage of the First Step Act, introduced the Next Step criminal justice reform bill. The bill addresses sentencing, drug-related convictions, expungement, racial profiling, voter rights reinstatement and police racial bias training, among others. One of the most promising parts of the bill is reintegration and early release, which could provide significant cost reduction to the prison system. With bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, this is bound to be a hot topic for the 2020 presidential election.

“The Next Step Act is the most comprehensive, ambitious criminal justice bill to be introduced in Congress in a generation. It would reduce harsh mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, while also eliminating the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences,” said Booker in a Washington Post Op-Ed. “It would also prohibit federal employers and contractors from asking job applicants about their criminal history until the final stages of the interview process; improve the ability of those behind bars to stay in touch with loved ones; provide better training for law enforcement officers in implicit racial bias, de-escalation and use-of-force; reinstate voting rights for formerly incarcerated individuals; and end the federal prohibition on marijuana.

The Next Step bill includes the following:

  • Prohibiting federal employers and contractors from asking about criminal records
  • Granting licenses for certain job categories, such as hairdresser and taxi driver, to those with records
  • Restoring voting rights to former inmates
  • Reducing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug-related crimes
  • Training for law enforcement on racial bias
  • The Marijuana Justice Act






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