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Does Congress' Prison Reform Bill Go Too Far or Not Far Enough?

The First Step Act has passed the House, but it will face opposition from both sides of the aisle in the Senate.
The First Step Act could be a small but important step toward criminal justice reform.

The First Step Act could be a small but important step toward criminal justice reform.

On Tuesday afternoon, the House of Representatives passed the First Step Act, a bill focused on reforming the prison system in the United States. It has bipartisan support and the backing of the White House, but an uncertain future in the Senate.

The bill will focus on rehabilitating those who are incarcerated by investing $50 million per year for five years into providing education, vocational training, and mental-health counseling for prisoners. It will also allow prisoners to earn credits to end their sentences early and help formerly incarcerated people obtain identification after their release.

As President Donald Trump's senior adviser Jared Kushner explained at a White House summit on prison reform: "The single biggest thing we want to do is really define what the purpose of a prison is. Is the purpose to punish, is the purpose to warehouse, or is the purpose to rehabilitate?" By promoting the First Step Act, Kushner appears to be pushing the U.S. prison system to facilitate more rehabilitation.

The First Step Act also requires inmates to be housed within 500 miles of their families and prohibits the shackling of female inmates while they are pregnant, giving birth, or in postpartum recovery.

Despite the bill's progressive, reform-based nature, it faces opposition from both sides of the aisle. In fact, some prominent Democrats argued in a letter to their colleagues that the bill doesn't go far enough. Conversely, Republican Senator Tom Cotton appears to be working discreetly to tank the bill because he believes it goes too far.

Critics also cite the bill's heavy prioritization of "back-end" reform as a downside. "Back-end" reforms focus on improving conditions once people are already imprisoned, while "front-end" reforms focus on reducing the time that someone is imprisoned during their sentencing. Some members of Congress, including many Democrats, are disappointed in the bill's failure to address mandatory minimums, one of the prime targets for overhauling the prison system.

Beyond that, although this bill is a positive move for prison reform, it will not result in sweeping criminal justice reform: The federal prison system makes up a relatively small proportion of the U.S. prison population. There are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies in America, of which only about a dozen are federal.

In a letter, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an advocacy group that usually supports criminal justice reform, urged lawmakers to vote "no" for a myriad of reasons including the bill's lack of sentencing reform and its credit system, which could potentially magnify the racial discrimination that's already pervasive in the prison system. Essentially, the group views the "take what we can get" mentality as a risky maneuver that may not bring about as much positive reform as anticipated.

Amid the controversy surrounding this bill is one seemingly surprising revelation: Trump, who describes himself as "tough on crime," endorsed the bill and said that he would sign if and when it arrives on his desk. Upon further inspection, however, it's logical that Trump would support a mild bill that likely won't do much to reduce America's prison population as a whole.

Even in spite of all the opposition the bill faces, the First Step Act would be the nation's first federal criminal justice reform in years. It would indeed be a small but important "first step" toward addressing America's mass incarceration problem.