Sep 3, 2019

Congress Working Series: The FIRST STEP Act

Partisanship is all too common in American politics today: It’s often what first comes to mind when many citizens think about our current political processes. Despite what we hear on the news about gridlock, there have been some examples of significant bipartisan efforts to pass strong legislation in recent years; legislation that makes a difference in the lives of Americans. Congress That Works has launched the “Congress Working” series to highlight specific legislation that demonstrates what Congress is capable of doing when people are willing to work across the aisle to enact important legislation. Bipartisan consensus is critical for passing legislation that works for all Americans, and these bills, which have often been approved with overwhelming bipartisan support, show how Congress can collaborate across party lines to enact effective legislation to address national concerns.

One great example of this is the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, also known as the FIRST STEP Act. The FIRST STEP Act, which was signed into law in December 2018, is the most significant federal-level criminal justice reform legislation this country has seen in about a decade, with a scope from early release programs to the treatment of pregnant inmates. From its conception, the FIRST STEP Act included several prison reform provisions designed to improve the conditions experienced by incarcerated people. The bill prohibits the shackling of pregnant inmates and the use of solitary confinement among juvenile offenders and expands on home detention programs for elderly or sick inmates.

The crown jewel of the act, however, is its aggressive and retroactive sentencing reform. Most notably, the bill could shorten the sentences of thousands of inmates significantly by retroactively changing sentencing rules and allowing some to apply additional “good time credits” for the time they’ve already served—meaning many could be up for release soon. The bill also addresses recidivism. Specifically, it establishes a risk and needs assessment to classify an inmate’s risk of reoffending after release and specifies that 80% of the funds appropriated through the bill must be put toward the risk assessment and toward providing recidivism reduction programs.

But how did the FIRST STEP Act become one of the most significant criminal justice reform bills passed in recent history? Through a bipartisan commitment to collaboration and compromise in Congress. Since lawmakers first introduced the bill, many changes were proposed and incorporated into the legislation. In 2018, the Republican-controlled House passed a previous version of the bill, but some lawmakers, especially Senate Democrats, voiced their concerns that this version of the bill did not include measures to decrease prison sentence lengths.

After a few months of compromising, lawmakers amended the FIRST STEP Act to include four provisions from old legislation called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) that passed with bipartisan backing in 2015 but had not passed in 2016 despite much bipartisan support. The newly-amended legislation resulted in more bipartisan support from Republicans, Democrats, and the president as well. Yet, the bill still stalled temporarily in the Senate as some Republicans continued to have concerns. However, through a little additional compromise, the bill eventually passed with overwhelming support in the Senate in December 2018.

The bipartisan nature of the bill—and the commitment to getting it over the finish line—was evident through the push by both Republican and Democratic senators, including Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Dick Durbin (D-Ill), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), who were key in passing the legislation. Subsequently, President Trump signed it into law with a bipartisan group of the bill’s House and Senate sponsors in attendance. In addition to the cross-party support in Congress, the bill had the backing of a diverse cohort of advocacy groups, including #cut50, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Urban League, and the Koch Brothers. These groups had been working on and refining criminal justice reform for many years. Since its first introduction, The FIRST STEP Act demonstrates how much Congress can make a difference when lawmakers work across the aisle.

If members of Congress choose to bridge their differences and collaborate, they can continue to enact legislation like the FIRST STEP Act, which has had a significant impact on the lives of thousands of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people.

Aside from bipartisan consensus and commitment, having internal processes that enable across-the-aisle collaboration is key to getting legislation that significantly impacts Americans out the door. That’s why the work of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is vital to creating a better working atmosphere within the House that fosters bipartisanship and implementing a Congress that works.

Is Congress Working for You?