1. Update
  2. Criminal Justice

Senate Takes Step Toward Criminal Justice Reform

By José Santos Woss, November 16, 2018


The President expressed his support for the bipartisan criminal justice reform package the revised FIRST STEP Act. This revised legislation, which includes both prison and sentencing reform was introduced as S.3649. This is a welcome evolution from where we started this Congress.

The President this week expressed his support for the bipartisan criminal justice reform package the revised FIRST STEP Act. This revised legislation, which includes both prison and sentencing reform was introduced yesterday as S.3649. This is a welcome evolution from where we started this Congress. The President began his administration vowing to “end American carnage” in the streets. At one point he even called for more death penalty prosecutions. His Justice Department increased prosecutions and criminal sentences. When the President spoke last Wednesday of the unfairness of Ms. Alice Marie Johnson’s sentence, it showed he was beginning to understand how unfair and cruel an excessive sentence is on a person and an entire family.

The President, with his full support of both prison and sentencing reform, gives us the momentum to garner support from conservatives and members who ascribe to the “tough on crime” mindset. This bill includes compromise sentencing elements negotiated during the summer. Now, Congress must act. The President said he wants this on his desk. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) needs to work with his members to obtain 60 votes and schedule floor time for criminal justice reform. Only 12 legislative days remain.

What’s in the new bill?

The FIRST STEP Act began in the House as a bill that missed the mark on the most crucial element of reform: sentencing reform. Meaningful criminal justice reform requires us to address mass incarceration by undoing the harm of excessive, overly-harsh, unfair sentences that have led to the U.S. putting more people behind bars than any other country.

The revised bill, now includes important sentencing reform provisions meaning we may see people return to their families and communities more quickly. It will also free up needed funds for prison programming—a core element of prison reform and recidivism reduction.

We are disappointed that some sentencing reductions were not made retroactive. As a country we should not admit wrong and leave people in prison under old, defunct laws. We were pleased to see fairness for people sentenced to prison under old, racist crack penalties prior to passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010. This could potentially help an estimated 2,600 people see their prison sentence retroactively shortened instead of forcing them to serve additional years, even decades-longer prison terms. We also support the increase of $25 million in authorized funds for additional prison programming, bringing the total to an additional $75 million per year.

Bottom line? We would have liked to see more robust sentencing reductions, especially making sentencing changes apply retroactivity. If passed, 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.

Our system of incarceration is an affront to the dignity of the tens of thousands sitting in federal prison. We criminalize and remove whole sections of people—too often black and brown—and relegate them to prisons where they are often viewed as perpetually dangerous and less worthy of dignity. As Quakers we see God in every human spirit. regardless of whether they err. Jesus too was a prisoner.

Can this bill make it through Congress? That is a very open question. Congress has a lot it has to achieve during the lame duck session, most notably passing spending bills and preventing a partial government shutdown by December 7. This complicates the path forward for the FIRST STEP Act. The President’s support is a big help in encouraging Senator McConnell to make time for this important bill. House leaders have signaled their support for moving the FIRST STEP Act if the Senate passes the bill.

We hope that we see a bill make its way to the floor without additional enforcement mechanisms, robust sentencing reform, and respects the needs of people suffering under 40 years of mass incarceration. The only way this will happen is if members of Congress feel pressure from their constituents to take real action.

José Santos Woss

  • Legislative Manager, Criminal Justice and Election Integrity

José is the Legislative Manager for Criminal Justice and Election Integrity. He leads FCNL’s work on criminal justice reform, campaign finance reform (election integrity), and police militarization. He co-Chairs the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, an alliance of more than 40 national faith groups advocating to end mass incarceration.