In the coming days, we must urge Congress to pass a bill that moves the country in the right direction of much-needed and long-awaited criminal justice reform. The FIRST STEP Act, S. 3649, which has been endorsed by groups as diverse as the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is a bipartisan bill that makes important reforms. The bill is the result of years of ongoing bipartisan negotiations, and it has been endorsed by President Trump. We need to make sure the Senate prioritizes the bill in the lame duck session.
The FIRST STEP Act includes increased authorized funding for additional prison programming, anti-shackling provisions for pregnant women, retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, improved use of compassionate release for elderly and terminally ill individuals, and the use of a risk assessment tool to facilitate opportunities for individuals to access recidivism-reducing rehabilitation programs.
The Episcopal Church has worked for years with our ecumenical and interfaith partners to push for criminal justice reform. While this bill falls short in some ways – in particular we are disappointed with the limited retroactivity of the sentencing provisions and are concerned that the risk assessment tools could be used in a racially prejudicial manner – this bipartisan bill is truly a first step in the right direction. As it stands, we are supportive of this bill, but urge the Senate to resist making further changes, such as those that would limit judges' sentencing discretion by tightening "safety valve" provisions. Further change in this direction would reduce the positive impact and could even threaten the bipartisan support for the bill.
"We have a newly revised bill – with bipartisan support – that we believe can pass Congress before the end of the year," said Chief Paul M. Cell, President of the IACP. "This is a genuine opportunity to make our nation's criminal justice system safer and fairer for all."
"If passed," said José Santos Woss of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, "this bill would mean fewer people in prison, more people will be reunited with their families and communities, and more resources and space will be available for rehabilitation, job training, and other services."
While this bill includes many compromises and faces potential changes, we believe the passage of its current version will move criminal justice reform in the direction of restorative justice. In a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, our Roman Catholic partners at the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA, and Society of St. Vincent de Paul wrote:
"The criminal justice system has many problems, and this bill will not solve all of them. It has taken many decades for mass incarceration and racial disparities to build up in the system, and it will take a long time for the reform that is needed to achieve a system that is truly just. This bill is a good first step in that direction."