Opinion: A good ‘first step’ to criminal justice reform

I disagree with the Trump Administration on almost everything. But The First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill championed, in large measure, by the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is indeed a good step in the right direction. Thankfully, Congress has passed it and it will soon make it to Mr. Trump, who has already said he will sign it. Does the bill go far enough? No. And given the enormous size, scale and complexity of America’s bulging carceral state, by far the largest in the world, it is difficult to imagine a single bill that would.

But this bill will indeed help a lot of people who deserve a second chance, giving them, their families and their children the dignity that comes from productive citizenship, character and life skills development and gainful employment. In the end, this makes all of our communities safer and America stronger.

While not perfect, the bill does advance the work of reducing mandatory minimum sentences and it provides pathways for current inmates to reduce their sentences through participation in programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism and provide some of the life skills and tools necessary for successful reentry into society. The bill gives judges greater discretion in the sentencing of low-level, non-violent drug offenses.

But one of its most significant provisions is that it takes the Obama-era Fair Sentencing Act that greatly reduced the disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses and allows those sentenced prior to its passage to petition for its retroactive application. This retroactive provision alone offers potential relief to thousands of federal inmates, most of them people of color.

The devastation dealt to communities of color in the name of America’s so-called “war on drugs” has been brutal and incalculable as half of the young black men in every large American city are somewhere within the clutches of the criminal justice system. Fathers are separated from their families and children, continuing the cycle of poverty and imprisonment.

By no means will this bill alone dismantle mass incarceration, what Michelle Alexander rightly calls “the New Jim Crow.” But in addition to bringing some relief, its passage provides yet another opportunity to have an honest conversation in America about law enforcement, criminal justice and race. Why, for example, is the crack epidemic — the public face of which is urban and black — prosecuted as a “war” while the opioid epidemic — largely rural, suburban and white – is pursued as a public health emergency? As a pastor, I see how the consequences of these disparities in policing and perspective are tragically playing out in the lives of children and the communities where they live right now. That is why we cannot afford to wait on the next election or the next president to try to get something done on criminal justice reform.

As people are tempted to retreat easily into their partisan political corners, we should remember that America’s massive prison-industrial complex is a bipartisan creation. The truth is that, over the last four decades, politicians on the right and the left have embraced a distinct set of “get tough on crime” laws and policies that have not made the country safer but have instead created an increasingly privatized and lucrative prison industry. Consequently, a nation that comprises five percent of the world’s population now warehouses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

It will require ordinary citizens and elected officials on the left and the right to undo this mess. Rather than jostle over where this legislation falls short, perhaps this is the moment that can help lay the groundwork for truly historic transformation, as Americans come to see that the current system is unsustainable, costly, ineffective and, quite frankly, stupid. In a rare moment in American politics these days, democratic Senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand stood with Republicans Chuck Grassley and Mike Lee to pass this bill. We should applaud them and the First Step Act for the promise and progress that it represents. It’s past time for elected officials on both sides of the aisle to get serious about the important work of reforming our criminal system step by step, before another generation of young people are lost to it.

Rev. Raphael G. Warnock is senior pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.