Tuesday night, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed the most significant federal criminal justice and prison reform in a generation.
As a government shutdown loomed, 87 senators voted together to pass the First Step Act, which reduces sentences and promotes successful reentry into society. The bill received 26 more votes in the Senate than the infamous 1994 Clinton crime bill that gave us automatic life sentencing after “three strikes” — a testament to how far the country has moved on criminal justice in the last two decades. Now, the First Step Act heads to the House, where a previous version passed overwhelmingly (360-59) in May, and is expected to then be signed into law by President Trump, who endorsed the bill in November. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and special adviser to the president, has reportedly been the force advocating for the bill in the White House.
Although every Senate Democrat voted for First Step, many liberals did not pop champagne.
Instead, some framed the First Step Act as a self-interested effort by the Trump family as they supposedly face the prospect of prison sentences. Clara Jeffery, editor-in-chief of the progressive magazine Mother Jones, re-tweeted Ivanka Trump endorsing First Step and added, “When you’re cheering the prison reform that might help yourself and your family serve out their sentences a little bit easier…” Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, said on the podcast of former Obama-staffer Jon Lovett that Trump decided “to take up criminal justice reform so that he can free his friends.”
They’re wrong. For one, no member of the Trump family is likely going to federal prison anytime soon. For another, First Step does not help affluent people who go to prison for public corruption and white collar crimes.
“I think that when people say that the Trumps are passing this legislation because they are going to go to prison, it’s a funny joke, but it has no basis in reality,” Van Jones, CNN host and the co-founder of criminal justice reform organization #Cut50, told the Inquirer. “Trump doesn’t need a bill to protect his family from incarceration. He can just pardon them all right now if he wanted to.”
Jones is sympathetic to those on the political left who find it hard to celebrate the passage of the First Step Act. Jones says that “progressives have, for good reason, been conditioned to expect only terrible and awful things from the Trump administration. When you have 99 bad things and suddenly you have one good thing, you don’t know how to react.”
Jones has been one of the most vocal advocates of First Step, and some on the left have accused him of cozying up to the administration to get the bill passed. After Trump endorsed the First Step Act in November, Jones tweeted that Trump “is on his way to becoming the uniter-in-Chief on an issue that has divided America for generations.” A few weeks later Jones interviewed Kushner at a CNN event, after which he was accused of asking softball questions.
But Jones recognizes that the Trump administration is far from being an unequivocal champion of criminal justice reform. “The fact that on one hand, Trump appointed Jeff Sessions, and on the other hand supported Jared Kushner on this bill reflects a kind of schizophrenia that is a part of the American psychology when it comes to crime," he says. For Jones, his relationship with the White House is simply strategic. “It took both parties to get us into this mass incarceration ditch, and it is going to take both parties to pull us out.”
By passing First Step with such bipartisan support, lawmakers now have proof that criminal justice reform is not a political third rail. Jones believes that from January on, we will see a slew of criminal justice reform bills proposed — and that’s good because First Step should be nothing more than its name: a first step.
First Step only addresses the federal system, while about 90 percent of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States are in state prisons and local jails. The reform also merely tweaks oppressive policies instead of abolishing them. For example, instead of ditching the “three strikes” rule to automatically give a lifetime prison sentence to people with three or more federal drug or violent offenses, it sentences them to 25 years. It also introduces risk assessment algorithms that have been critiqued as tools of racial discrimination and expands digital monitoring. “Much of the critique of the bill can be summarized as follows: "'This is not the last step act,'” Jones says.
Like anything in politics, First Step is not without nuance. All at the same time, it marks our biggest progress toward criminal justice in a generation, helps thousands of unjustly sentenced people while ignoring millions of others, and includes problematic provisions. It does not protect Trump or his family. Supporting it does not excuse Trump administration atrocities such as child separation and caging children. But wins for justice, even small ones, are rare these days. Liberals should take the W and continue to fight.