We have watched with interest the intense debate within the Right — much of it on these very pages — over the FIRST STEP Act. We strongly believe that the federal criminal-justice system is dysfunctional and needs reform. We are also highly aware of the threat to public safety it poses to release violent individuals back onto the streets.
In a recent issue of the magazine, we urged Congress to address the serious concerns that critics such as Senator Tom Cotton had raised with the bill — and to do so with a sense of urgency, because the bill contains much that is crucial. Now, the sponsors have agreed to an amendment from Senator Ted Cruz that would, in Cruz’s words, “exclude violent offenders from being released early.” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell plans to hold a vote this month.
It is worth continuing to hear out the bill’s critics when the final text is released, as is always the case with complicated legislation. Indeed, Senator Cotton has already vowed to introduce his own amendments to supplement Cruz’s. But so long as the changes achieve what Cruz has promised, FIRST STEP deserves to become law. As we detailed previously, it addresses a number of serious problems in the current system.
For one thing, it reforms the practice of “stacking” gun charges, in which a person charged with multiple offenses at once is treated as if he’d been caught numerous times and failed to learn his lesson. The 2004 case of Weldon Angelos illustrated this in stark terms: He received a 55-year mandatory-minimum sentence for selling marijuana to a police informant multiple times while carrying a gun. As the judge who regretfully sentenced him pointed out, he would have gotten less time for rape or second-degree murder. (Thanks to the immense amount of publicity the case received, however, an opaque deal was struck in 2016 to give Angelos a sentence reduction.)
Meanwhile, some prisoners are still serving drug sentences from the days when a given amount of crack was treated as the equivalent of 100 times the same amount of powder cocaine. Congress already reduced this disparity for new cases, and it is fair to apply the change retroactively as well.
The bill also expands some initiatives that aim to reduce recidivism and creates statutory prison rules that, for example, keep inmates closer to their families and ban the shackling of women during labor.
We are far more skeptical of “justice reform” than are many on the left, and even many on the right. Our sympathies lie first and foremost with the victims of crime, not with those who commit it. But FIRST STEP, with Cruz’s amendment as he has described it, focuses specifically on the aspects of the federal system that that are overly punitive, sometimes horrifyingly so. Congress should comb through the final text looking for any outstanding issues, fix them as needed, and pass it.