A Necessary Reform

The First Step Act-Paves-Way-for-Prison Reform

The First Step Act, an initiative aimed at federal prison reform, was recently enacted into law. It passed both the House and Senate with overwhelming support. President Trump immediately signed the legislation. Thus, the Act affirms the popular consensus of the American public that some form of federal prison reform is needed.

By definition, reform is the correction, amendment, or removal of an abuse, defect, corruption or some other wrong that exists. Congressional support of the First Step Act suggests that lawmakers believe there is something wrong with the federal prison system.

Hint:  There is.

One aspect of the problem is the size of the federal prison population. As of 2016, Federal prisons house about 200,000 individuals. This is 12.6 percent of the nation’s total prison population. That’s up from 7.4 percent in 1980. The federal prison system’s contribution to America’s mass incarceration problem is significant.

The First Step Act takes aim at this issue by reducing some criminal sentences and promoting incentive-based rehabilitative programming for eligible inmates. This act is comprehensive in its scope but limited in its eligibility. The legislation excludes many federal inmates from reaping its benefits. The First Step Act will, at best, result in a minimal reduction in the federal prison population. Moreover, even if the rate of federal imprisonment returned to what it was before the federal prison population exploded, there would still be about seven times as many federal inmates as there were a generation ago.

The Role of the Federal Government

In a recent opinion piece published in the Washington Post, Stanford professor Keith Humphreys looked at the ballooning federal prison population from a different perspective. Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and affiliated faculty member at Stanford Law, asks a very basic question: What is the federal government’s role in law enforcement to begin with? It’s not to combat violent crime.  According to Humphreys, the Constitution assigns most law enforcement powers to the states. That’s why federal prisons hold only about 2 percent of all U.S. prisoners serving time for a violent crime.

Instead, Humphreys argues that the federal law enforcement apparatus is important in three areas. First, federal agencies can and should combat state and local corruption. Second, federal authorities are in a good position to take down large criminal organizations that overwhelm state and local law enforcement. Finally, and rather obviously, federal law enforcement should investigate and punish crimes specifically against the federal government.

If we assume that these are the kinds of offenses properly policed by the federal government, then the First Step Act doesn’t go far enough.  According to Humphreys, the First Step Act and other Obama-era reforms will reduce the federal prison population, but it will still be seven times greater than it was in 1980. Is it fair to assume that the number of those that deserved sentences for those crimes that the federal government should be concerned with is seven times higher than it was in 1980?  Hardly.

The First Step Act Paving the Way for a Second Step

As such, a second step is necessary. The broad and bipartisan coalition that supported the First Step Act should aim higher, says Humphreys. The goal: “return the federal prison system to its traditional role as an important–but small–part of the U.S. correctional system.”

Src: “The New Criminal Justice Law Will Modestly Shrink Prison Populations. Should we go Further?” Keith Humphreys. WashingtonPost.com

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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